The practice of excellence

Human flourishing means seeing what is and acting accordingly.

“A man properly nurtured in poetry will quickly spot shoddy, poorly made works and ill-grown things, and his joy and aversion will be properly placed; he’ll approve beautiful things, joyfully take them into his soul, and from their nurture grow beautiful and good; ugly ones he’ll hate and properly condemn even as a child before he can grasp the reason, and when reason comes he’ll know her and embrace her as one of his own.”
—Plato, Repub. III.401e-402a

“I guess you don’t hear Phocylides’ saying that when a man has enough to live on he should practice excellence.”
—Plato, Repub. III.407a

“Well, I suppose you agree that people are deprived of bad things voluntarily and of good things involuntarily. And isn’t it bad to be deceived of the truth, but good to encounter it? Or isn’t conjecturing the truth the same as encountering it?”
—Plato, Repub. III.413a

Near the end of the Second Book of Plato’s Republic, we find Socrates telling Adeimantus, “No one would willingly accept a lie in the most vital place about the most vital things. To have that there terrifies us more than anything.” Plato’s brother is still confused. “What where?” he says, “I still don’t understand.” Socrates explains, “You do not get the point because you think I mean something highfalutin. All I mean is that no one wants to be deceived and ignorant about reality in his soul; to have a lie there instead of the truth. Everyone would hate that” (382b).

Notice what is being said here. We might well lie to others in order to obtain what we want. Human beings do that, though all lies, like all error, are based in some truth. Otherwise it could not happen, since a lie presupposes that the truth is being spoken to a listener who presumes the truthfulness of the speaker. If everyone lied, we could not communicate. We would all have to shut up permanently. Thus in lying, we are, or at least we think we are, doing something for our benefit. We intend some good, usually what we think to be our own.

The question posed by Socrates, however, concerns not our lying to someone else but our lying to ourselves, a different nuance. Lying about what? Lying about the most important things. An objective order judges us. The assumption is that some things are of more importance than others. Life has to do with sorting them out, the important things from the unimportant ones, not that unimportant things are not also of considerable value. To deceive ourselves about what we are, of what is important, however, stands in a different category.

When I first read these remarkable lines of Plato, I thought that he was right. No one would want a lie in his soul about the important things, about his own being in the world. But, on second thought, do people really want to know the most important things about reality, about themselves, if it makes a demand on them that they do not want to fulfill? The issue goes to the root of our own free being.

The question next arises about whether we can unknowingly have a lie in our souls about the most important things. This is not the question of whether we can be wrong about what it is. Socrates seems to have held that lying and other disorders were a question of knowledge alone. If we just knew the right thing, we would be fine. Therefore, education was the proper cure. If we do not know it, it can hardly be a lie. Yet, if no one actually has a lie in his soul about the most important things, then it must follow that everyone is living a true life.

This consequence would be fine but it seems obviously not to be true. If no one has a lie in his soul, the world must in fact be as the relativists teach us. Nothing is true since the “what people actually hold” contradict each other. If relativism is true, no one has a lie in his soul. Everyone should be living happily. No one, in this view, has any grounds for urging us to examine ourselves. The famous phrase of Socrates in the Apology was precisely that we were to “examine our lives daily.” He tried to wake up the Athenians. This is what his dialectic was about. Rather than do this self-examination, they killed him for bothering them. It follows that we cannot really have a conversation about the truth of things if everything is true, no matter how contradictory.

Aristotle taught us in the first book of his Ethics that we can find a number of candidates for the reality in which our happiness is said to exist. As far as we can see, most people most of the time pursue ends that are in fact myths or lies or shadows about what is important and what it not. This fact of many definitions of happiness is the realistic view of the human condition. That is the condition we find ourselves in, so there must be some justification for it.

Aristotle did not think that knowledge was the sole cause of our disorders, though it was a component. He correctly thought that we could not have a lie in our souls without at the same time having some truth there. It is impossible simply to err for its own sake. We err under the aspect of truth or good. In this sense, Plato is right. No one wants a lie in his soul about the most important things. Augustine taught us much about the power of our will even in the face of our mind’s understanding of the truth.

Later on, this issue will be taken up by Aquinas under the question of the erroneous conscience. This is the question that haunts us about the suicide bomber. He justifies his acts not because he is a relativist but because his religion evidently can justify and promote his action, even calling it martyrdom, all in the name of the spread of his faith. This issue, in fact, taxes the whole foundations of liberalism and ecumenism, a fact with which we are reluctant to come to terms.

Aquinas, in retrospect, is quite radical here. The erroneous conscience must be followed, assuming it is innocently erroneous. But Aquinas does not allow conscience to exercise complete control or to be uninformed. We must account for why we think this thing, not that thing, is right. Pope Benedict XVI’s little book On Conscience deals with this question. His emphasis on natural law, which all men can in principle understand, grounds his effort to find a way out of both religious fanaticism and relativism on the basis of a common standard known to mind as mind.

The question then becomes: “What are the important things?” We might argue about what things are more important, but we cannot say that nothing is important. Or perhaps, we can say it, but we cannot and do not act on it or live it. The so-called “truth” of relativism leads us to approve everything on the grounds that truth is found, or if there is truth, we cannot know it. And, as a matter of fact, no one approves of everything. If we have to approve of everything, we are reduced to silence. There is no sense in objecting or calling attention to a better way, if nothing is better. We are left with a world full of “preferences” but no truth. Again, in this background, no conversation is possible.

A friend of mine sent me an old Peanuts cartoon that makes this point rather well. Lucy is clearly angry. She is yelling to a perplexed Linus. She shouts: “You’re crazy! You’re just plain stupid, crazy.” In the next scene, she throws her arms in the air: “You talk like someone who’s just fallen out of a tree! You’re stark raving stupid!

In the next panel, Linus is standing alone with a determined look on his face. He says, “I should have known better….” In the final segment, he walks off into the distance. “There are things,” he concludes, “I have learned never to discuss with people…religion, politics and the Great Pumpkin.” Yet, these are the great issues about which we do not want to have a lie in our souls. Chesterton said somewhere that people talk about sex and religion because these are things worth talking about. The great enterprise of civilization is that we can talk about ultimate things and seek to live them.

We live in an odd culture in which any hint that everyone cannot define his own ends, whatever they are—a view that even formed the basis of a Supreme Court decision—is called “imposing one’s own values on others.” The claim that there are truths that are not arbitrary has come to be almost the worst of contemporary sins. Why? Well, I take it because it implies that some truth or standard exists by which we can and ought to judge or ascertain, a standard we discover, but do not make.

Do our choices correspond to reality or not? This implies that in reality we do not just “make” truth, but, again, discover it, as if it has a source not our own, especially the truth about ourselves. We are the only finite beings we know in the universe for whom the question comes up. The older view, in which there was right and wrong, orthodoxy and heresy, had at least the advantage of recognizing that a lie in our souls about what ismakes a difference about our very being, almost as if to say that completion of our being constitutes the great adventure in which each of us is already involved. But we are to complete ourselves in order that we might be given the universe and its source.

We often hear it said that wars and controversies are caused by claims to truth. Historically, this is true. It was considered a noble thing to stand for, and if necessary, to die for the truth, for one’s land, one’s way of living. The argument was not subjective. It understood that ideas were important because on their truth depends the question of whether human life had any meaning, not just for one person but for everyone holding and searching for the same truth.

The second citation from the Republic that I cited in the beginning has that spare conciseness that gets to the heart of things. Generally speaking, we need enough to live on. The production and bringing about this sufficiency is what economics is about. It is, as E.F. Schumacher said, something we know how to do. Whether we do it or not is not an economic problem. But though wealth is one of the proposed definitions of happiness, on examination it does not deliver it. At first sight, with wealth we can buy everything we might want—honor, pleasure, fame. Plato, however, tells us that we are to go in another direction. We are to pursue “excellence” or virtue. And virtue itself only makes happiness possible. Happiness is the activity of the virtues.

We find a rather curious remark in Aristotle, who tells us that virtue stands in the mean between two extremes. He says that no virtue is found in practicing the extremes perfectly. That practice would be the epitome of vice. On the other hand, he also says that no limit to the mean of virtue can be found. That is, assuming we are not insufferable bores, we can practice virtue as much as we want, for that is why we exist.

Josef Pieper calls virtue “the ultimate potency.” This is a remarkable expression. He means that we can identify the various virtues, natural and supernatural. Logically, this means that every human being should put into existence all of the potency that he possesses. The polity exists as the major arena for this eventuality. It is only in this way that the world can be complete. And yet, the completion of the world is not our final and principal happiness.

Institutions such as the state, the corporation, or the school cannot be said to be “happy.” They are not substantial beings; they do not bear reality. Their order or disorder can impede or foster the attainment of virtue. But human happiness is not something down the ages. We are not in the business of producing the perfect polity that will come into being long after most of us will be dead. Obviously, this understanding of what a state is does not deny that we are by nature social and political animals. The tractates on friendship and the related one on love reveal that our destiny is to be with one another. But this being with one another is itself premised on the being of God.

Perhaps the greatest experience a young man or woman can have is the sudden realization that, at the origin of things, God it is who defines, revealing himself as Trinity in such a way that our personal being, in its light, is recognized as lasting forever. Our life is already an eternal life waiting to be complete. If we examine what it is we want, it seems clear that we want precisely this lasting forever.

The question is, no doubt: How is this “lasting forever” possible? Christianity exists to explain it to us. Christianity, in this sense, is a revelation to and of mind. It takes seriously the “lie” of the relativist position because it deprives each human being of the adventure of what he is—and this is an adventure that, by his very living, he is already involved in. It is his history, his life. No other one will ever be like it. No one will ever be other than what he already is by nature and calling.

Behind all of this lies the fact that it is possible for us not to achieve the end that is inherent in our being and offered to us as a gift. It is this possibility that the modern age has striven most diligently to deny or turn away from. No ultimate consequences to anything human, exactly the opposite of what it is to be human. Without the possibility of rejecting what we are, we have no possibility of being what we really are.

We can, and evidently many do, reject the truth that they are intended to place in their lives. This truth must be put there by themselves in their lives as lived. This possibility of rejecting the good, to repeat, is necessary if our individual lives are significant. We cannot acquire virtue or excellence unless we choose to do so. The doctrines of hell and purgatory, as Pope Benedict put it in Spe Salvi, are not irrational or indifferent. Indeed, in an ironic manner, they are precisely the doctrines that insist that our individual lives are intended to be forever.

Plato had understood this reality. His myths of the last things in the Republic and the Phaedo outlined the logic of this position. Plato was concerned about whether the world was created in injustice. His reasoning was this: If there were no immortality of the soul, this lack would mean that those who did evil things and did not repent of them would not be punished for their crimes in this world or the next. Plato could not accept the fact that the world was made in injustice, which it would be if we escaped our actions.

Benedict says much the same thing, only in the more logical Christian context of the resurrection of the body. Indeed, Benedict, in a striking phrase, says that “each human person is a salvation history.” This affirmation, of course, means that the pathways of each human life reveal both a divine beginning in the Godhead and a divine ending in everlasting life. The locus of what each life means is his place and history in the world. It is not altogether an accident that a novel is often the best and most striking way for us to become aware of the deepest outlines of given human lives.

In the third citation above from the Republic (413a), we are reminded that we are deprived of what is good involuntarily, but of what is bad voluntarily. It is indeed bad to be deprived of the truth, but good that we encounter it. If we have something good, we do not want it taken away from us. These are classic affirmations. No one wants to be wrong and find that he is himself responsible for not knowing what is true or good. And good and true never appear to us in the abstract but always in particular, concrete situations of our days along with the reflections of our minds.

Let me continue by saying some things about teaching and learning, about being a student, about being one who learns. A couple of semesters ago, I received a postcard from a student who was at that time studying abroad in Buenos Aires. She writes:

It has been amazing to take classes with Argentine students. They seem to be friendly and willing to help the American students. I just arrived in Buenos Aries from Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost region of the world. It was spectacular! Also, I must tell you that I saw a restaurant named “Socrates” here…I thought you would appreciate that.

Now, as a matter of fact, I do appreciate the fact that a student in Buenos Aires notes the existence of a restaurant called “Socrates” in that far-off place. She did not, alas, tell me whether the Argentines went about daily examining their lives, as Socrates would have told them to do midst their busy streets and plazas.

Education means that we sense the overtones of ordinary things. When a student recalls the name “Socrates,” we know that she is alert to something more than just the city she is in. To evoke Socrates in Buenos Aires is to invoke Athens and the questions and answers we recall from there.

We are reminded of the famous scene at the beginning of the Phaedo where, in the small town of Phlius, Echecrates says to Phaedo: “Please be good enough to tell us all that occurred as fully as possible, unless you have some pressing business.” Again note that great things can happen in obscure places. In a sense, we are all present everywhere if we are examining our lives. Phaedo responds, in a famous passage, “I have the time and I will try to tell you the whole story, for nothing gives me more pleasure than to call Socrates to mind, whether in talking about him myself, or listening to someone else do so” (58d). A student knows that something is happening in his soul when he begins to recall Socrates with pleasure. That kind of pleasure comes only from mind, from seeing what is.

A friend sent me a print of a painting by Norman Rockwell from 1921. This painting, evidently, was originally commissioned by the Edison Mazda Lamp Works to advertize their new reading lamp. Though the title of the painting is “Crackers in Bed,” it is really about something higher. Of course, everyone knows that the last thing we want in bed with us are cracker crumbs caused by own careless munchings. But that is the point, we may not notice. Why would this not-noticing be possible? Clearly, it is because something else rivets our attention.

In the scene, we see a young boy, maybe twelve or thirteen, with red hair. He is in bed, knees propped up, reading a book. He is over half-way through the book. The new Edison lamp is dutifully sitting on a stand, raised higher by the three books on which it sits. The scene looks outside the window; lights are in the neighbor’s house. Dawn is just beginning, which means the boy has probably been reading most of the night. A pillow supports him; he is under a warm comforter. His hand is in the cracker box, so he has absent-mindedly been eating while he reads.

We do not know the name of the book. The boy’s face is quite sober and absorbed in what he is reading. We see his shoes on the floor. The light shows his bedroom wall, with a painting, that looks like it might be of a standing eagle. “What are we seeing here?” I ask. We are seeing what it means to be awakened to what is beyond us, to find stories that simply absorb us, stories worth reading all night if our parents let us get by with it.

We are bound together in such a way that stories of what is seen or thought have to be handed down to us. We have all been given a list of things we “must” read. It is a strange thing that men long before our time have written down things which, we, in encountering them, take the time to read. It is true that reading is not a substitute for reality, for actually living. Yet, we are aware that we need to see how others lived and thought and acted. We reveal our souls in our actions, how we have chosen to live, for what. Writers wrote about these things. Fiction is no impediment.

It is a strange thing, this fact that, through books, we can live more than our own lives. We need examples of virtue and vice at all stages of life and in all conditions of power and exchange. We go back to Linus, who quickly learned that there were a couple of things not to discuss with Lucy or anybody else. We become aware that life eventually consists in finding someone with whom we can discuss the highest things. Finding this is what friendship at its best means. We do not want lies in our souls about the important things. It may well be that we avoid the lie by, with Phaedo, talking to Socrates or with our friend in a restaurant, called Socrates, in Buenos Aires. Or we may simply be reading in bed, so fascinated that we cannot put the book down to go to sleep.

It is not, I think, the function of a teacher to “wake up” students. Reality must do that. The teacher himself needs first to be awake. Yet we know that false sirens exist. Yves Simon once remarked that nothing can prevent the young philosopher from giving his soul to an unworthy teacher. We are never to allow ourselves to think that the ideas that led eventually to the greatest evils were not also somehow attractive to someone, even to us. Plato adds to this in the seventh book of the Republic that we can come on ideas too soon in life. Not being able to comprehend them, we think they are unknowable. These are facts.

Yet, what I want to conclude with is what I will here call the soul awake. Fortunate is the reader, pilgrim, or student who has come across a way of truth, a way that some others have also crossed before him, but some have turned away. It is, no doubt, a lonely trail, in many ways. This is due, I think, to the fact that, in the end, it is our souls that we want to save, in which there is no lie. Man is a political and social animal, yet he transcends this order with his knowing. But his knowing takes him to the highest things.

In his Commentary on the Gospel of John, St. Cyril of Alexandria wrote: “In a plan of surpassing beauty the Creator of the universe decreed the renewal of all things in Christ.” When I read that sentence in the Breviary recently, I was struck by that phrase of Cyril—“a plan of surpassing beauty.”

Plato told us, “A man properly nurtured in poetry will quickly spot shoddy, poorly-made works and ill-grown things, and his joy and aversion will be properly placed; he’ll approve beautiful things, joyfully taking them into his soul….” We find a book; it keeps us awake all night. We do not want lies in our souls about the highest things. We seek to practice excellence. The teacher and the student, if they are in harmony, seek the same truth ofwhat is. In the end, no one owns the truth. It is a gift that is found, often unexpectedly. Someone talks of Socrates or of why creation is itself a plan of beauty. We are alert. We wonder. We want to know the truth of things, no lies in our souls.

Fr. James V. Schall, SJ About Fr. James V. Schall, SJ

Fr. James Schall, SJ (1928–2019), was long a professor of political science at Georgetown University, a thinker of wide learning, and an author extensively published — including, happily, here at HPR.