Platoʼs Socrates sometimes conveys the impression that one cannot be truly virtuous without being in possession of a philosophical theory about the nature of virtue, or goodness. From a Christian point of view, however, living well (morally and otherwise) does not depend so much on philosophical understanding as on life in the Church. Scripture enjoins us to cultivate the "fruits of the spirit"—love, peace, patience, and so on—and to be "transformed by the renewing of our minds", which is largely supposed to be a matter of learning to love God and neighbor in a way that emulates Christ. There is no indication that theorizing about these things will help us much in our efforts to accomplish them….[p.35]
One of the most important job skills of an analytic philosopher is strongly correlated with whatever skill is involved in successfully rationalizing bad behavior, deceiving oneself, putting a positive spin on bad circumstances, and so on. Also, there are certain modes of behavior—ways of being ambitious, or arrogant, or disrespectful to others, for example—that seem much easier to fall into in professions (like philosophy) where reputation, and having oneʼs own reputation elevated over the reputations of people with whom one works, is often correlated with promotions, job security, pay raises, and the like. To this extent, I find that being a philosopher (or being an academic generally) poses certain obstacles, or challenges, to my own moral and spiritual development as a Christian. Accordingly, I see a variety of ways in which being a Christian can, or should, enable one to achieve a degree of critical distance from certain kinds of widespread but dysfunctional norms and values in the profession. This is, of course, not to say that being a Christian is the only way of achieving such distance; but it is, or should be, a way of doing so. Michael Rea "Reformed Protestantism" [pp. 37-8; emphases in original--ES; HT: Helen de Cruz at Philosopherscocoon]
Helen de Cruz wrote a lovely post about Michael Rea's "programmatic" paper (p. 2). In it she quotes the last paragraph of the essay that I also reproduced above. That paragraph offers two claims that I paraphrase:
- it is difficult to be moral (and spiritual) as a professional academic because of institutional factors in which certain success goods are zero-sum and the way to obtain these success goods is by way of behavior that hinders the practice of virtue (including collaboration, community and spiritual development);
- Analytical philosophy generates habits of thought that exacerbates the problems diagnosed in (1).
In commenting on Ruth Chang's reflections on the discipline, I also noted that analytical philosophy disciplines habits of thought that generates deformed intellectual reflexes (so that our moral sentiments or reactive attitudes misfire); in particular, we are likely to withhold sympathy/comfort when we ought to extend it (recall). So, I agree with Rea's (2), although he emphasizes (and this is echoed by De Cruz) the role of intellectual skill in self-deception and rationalization of one's bad behavior.* I also agree with Rea's (1); as I note in the context of blogging about analytical egalitarianism, professional academics are offered a whole bunch of incentives and success goods that ought to be made transparent and theorized about in how we reflect on ourselves (and, especially, the ways we try to improve the world). Ideally, we would help contribute to a better institutional design that would ameliorate and reduce the problems associated with (2) and, if possible (1). Rea himself seems to think that being a Christian may contribute to ameliorating (1). In the piece he is very cautious about linking "the relation between Christian faith and politics" (p. 36); he notes that "from the fact that Christians as such ought to be involved somehow in this sort of corporate work not much seems to follow about exactly what form that involvement ought to take." (Rea p. 36) So, we are not offered a Christian framework for institutional reform toward the good (yet).
But despite the cautious stance, it is still worth noting that Rea's programmatic piece offers a more profound challenge (one that De Cruz does not note in her piece). If you look at the very first passage quoted at the top of this post, Rea revives a version of the opposition between Athens ("Plato's Socrates") and Rome/Jerusalem ("life in the Church"/emulating "Christ"). In particular, Rea's stance is distinctly deflationary about the value of philosophical theorizing and its contribution toward living a moral life; to be clear, Rea falls short of Nietzsche's charge that (much) philosophy is a sickness. But in reading the paper as a whole, I came away thinking that for Rea philosophy plays a decidedly instrumental, subservient role in one's "life in the Church;" it is crucial in theology and in analyzing the relationship between reason and faith.** So, when, for example, Rea explains his version of sola scriptura, he recognizes constraints from "moral intuition" (pp. 13-14), but not moral philosophy as such. So, Rea is in some respects rejecting the post Spinoza-Adam Smith-Kant consensus here. As he puts it: "Moral theory is, at best, a secondary or tertiary aid." (p. 35) I say in 'some respects' not just to do justice to the tentative nature of Rea's piece, but also because Rea's position is compatible with (and perhaps subtly intended in this way) to let moral philosophy shape our 'moral intuitions' indirectly--after all, as reflection on his treatment of some of the more morally problematic literal claims in Scripture reveals, Rea wants to leave room for, shall we say, inspired moral progress over time.
So, in so far as we in philosophy treat Plato's Socrates as a kind of moral exemplar Rea is inclined to demur. Obviously, unlike the practices of Ancient philosophical schools, few of us treat Socrates as a particular exemplar. But in so far as Socrates's example is opposed because Socrates evinces a kind of faith in theorizing -- and again, throughout his chapter Rea is explicit in thinking that 'faith' plays a constitutive role in practices outside of religion -- then Rea echoes a set of reservations that within analytical philosophy are associated with the name of Bernard Williams (and, for those with wider reading habits, names like Hume, Nietzsche, and Derrida). So, the third claim I attribute to Rea is:
3. Philosophical theorizing can be a barrier to the practice virtue.
And again, I, too, have offered claims in the vicinity of (3). In particular, Plato's Socrates and the Stoics that followed are involved in a kind of 'original sin' by its hostility toward certain kind of 'others,' especially ones associated with 'rustic wisdom' that is forms of life that stand outside of the polity/law (recall this post). My own interest in this is fueled by the idea that philosophy ends up being caught up in practices that systematically violate less powerful 'others' (recall this post on Spivak). Interestingly enough, the way Rea describes the cultivation of the "fruits of the spirit," a "Christian life" is, of course, echoing Augustine, compatible with obedience to the law, but it does not intrinsically involve it:
Rather, we are enjoined to accomplish these things by having regular fellowship with other believers, confessing our sins to one another and praying for one another, diligently studying scripture together, and submitting ourselves to one another in various ways—partly in order to cultivate humility and treat one another kindly, but also for the sake of receiving help in the Christian life. The liturgies of the Church, the sacraments and the Church calendar, and the spiritual disciplines are all likewise directed toward the end of helping individual believers to take their place in a body that is working corporately in an effort to manifest Christ and to bring healing and the good news of the gospel to a broken world. (p. 35)
I am inclined to think that this corporate body is until Rea clarifies how he sees "the relation between Christian faith and politics," spiritually a form of the 'rustic wisdom' that Socrates and professional philosophy too commonly and too thoughtlessly reject. Given that the "fruits of peace" generate, what we may call, "true friendship," even non-Christians ought to welcome Rea's reflections.
*Obviously it does not follow that analytical philosophy is especially bad. One would have to make a comparative analysis.
** I found Rea's definition of faith especially interesting.