The following is a bit obscure and pretentious, but it contains seeds of important ideas. Insofar as it was entirely fueled by Eugen Rosenstock-Hussey, I dedicate it Charles Hartman. It is mainly because it may be of interest to him that I post it. I was seeking to explain the significance of the Moral Philosophy course which is the core of the New College curriculum, and I got sucked into a much bigger discussion I think.
Moral Philosophy has the ultimate goal of greater knowledge of God: who He is, how He acts, and especially how He is revealed and known to us. It is distinct from theology, then, mainly in the specific means and approach used. Moral Philosophy concerns itself with God in the world, and man’s understanding of Him, hence it is something of a branch or result of theology and not theology proper.
Nor is Moral Philosophy merely concerned with the world, rather it deals chiefly with memory. Man doesn’t give birth to himself, so we must be able to answer the question of how we found ourselves at this specific point in history and where we are going. This is not history as taught in schools, because it really has little to do with dates or with interesting stories, but true history made up of once-for-all events. These landmarks in time tend to be solidified with a transformation of speech. Changes in the world are accompanied by new ideas and expressions of reality (sometimes the speech precedes the event, sometimes it follows, and sometimes the speech and event are indistinguishable).
It is necessary then to explore the words of previous times. Not merely beautiful ones, but the ones which contributed to drawing humanity forward in time (either for good or ill). It is a study not just of what has been thought, but of what sorts of thoughts and ideas change mankind. True progress consists in passing on what has been gained and understood through generations; if ideas are not communicated, they are good for nothing because they will not continue. Thus, it is the continuation of ideas, the expressions and outpourings of man’s words that propel him through history.
The works that must be studied, then, are those which are truly significant. Not those that are significant statistically, that were read by many people per se, but those that either brought about cultural shifts or responded to and institutionalized such shifts. Man only has history in so much as he has a story; everything else is lost in obscurity.
To gain the knowledge of this story, this cumulative succession of knowledge and belief, we must begin our analysis of works of the past by understanding what is being said in those works. It may go without saying, but the discipline must begin with basic, almost grammatical comprehension of its materials. The reader must ask, “What is the author saying?” and just as importantly, “What isn’t the author saying?”
The question of what is being said is naturally entwined with how and why. Where was the author standing in history that he was compelled to write as he did? How did this affect the story of mankind? Why did he choose the medium that he did? Did he believe himself to building on the works of others or breaking from the past? These and many other similar questions are asked for the sake of understanding the work both for its time and for ours. We find the world we inhabit mentally has grown out of a vast sea of various ideas, some good, some bad, all complexly interwoven such that we frequently do not know where one ends and another starts. Without some exploration of this past, how can we know where we have arrived today?
We follow this by comparing what has been said with what ought to be said. What did an author understand about his time and about eternity, and what did he fail to understand? This critique is not for the sake of claiming higher ground for ourselves; hindsight is not 20/20, but as thoughts work themselves throughout history, we are given a greater context for understanding them. All words must be evaluated as to how they reveal Truth. As our understanding of works grows by comparison to the Truth of Scripture, so our understanding of Truth frequently expands as well, as we learn that various nuances, shades, imitations, and facets of Truth have manifested themselves in complex and diverse manners throughout time. This comparison of works and words one to another as well as to divinely revealed Truth is absolutely vital to the discipline. Without such labor and participation, we are no more than parrots, repeating what has been said before.
It is fitting that this conversation of the dead should be accomplished by the conversation of the living. Because Moral Philosophy is the story of mankind, the story must be told. Thinking thoughts does not make us members of this unending conversation—speaking does. Unheard words will not allow us to shape the times. Not to speak our understanding would be as bad as merely interpreting works without comparison and synthesis; it would be fruitless.
So the task or discipline of Moral Philosophy is best carried out in living communities where we learn not only what has been said or what we ought to say, but also how we ought to say what must be said. When learning together, the question must be asked, “What kind of conversation can transform us? How can we become more than we were before?” If we do not become teachers, we become irrelevant and we will be lost to time. If we do not speak to one another, we cannot really move forward in time. Our discoveries will go to the grave with us.
Rhetoric is considered the capstone of a classical education; it is worthy of note that the final product is not merely thinking, but it implies speaking, and affective speaking as well (by this I mean speech which is more than merely rational, which “tugs at the heart strings,” if you will), compiling knowledge effectively to engage and persuade, in fact, to transform others. This step is the step that Moral Philosophy must take if it is to be more than a quaint, erudite intellectual exercise.
We can only reach our future by speaking it into existence.# This does not imply that all speech is effective towards such an end. Much of what we speak is trivial, unimportant, and will not be remembered, but here the study of the words of the past comes to our aid. By examining these words, we begin to learn a little of how to speak with finality and power. Most who pursue this discipline will not write books to be remembered throughout time, perhaps most will not write at all, but as we speak to one another, we begin to make memorials, landmarks, that will perhaps enable another generation to know what must be said and to pull us all forward in time, and give us all a future, and a history.