Attending College in Plato’s Cave
Catholic Liberal Education as the Key
to Understanding Modern Moral Culture



by Dr. Christopher Oleson
Opening Lecture
St. Vincent de Paul Lecture & Concert Series,
Thomas Aquinas College, California
August 28, 2023


Freshmen, it is the custom here at the college for a faculty member to give the school’s opening lecture on some aspect of Catholic liberal education. This tradition is important for our community, for it continually invites us to think through just what it is we are trying to accomplish here at TAC.  

As you know, our college is a very counter cultural institution.  Our mission is to form in our students a love for the deepest and most universal truths about God, the world, and the human condition. We do not train you to write code, to generate marketing analytics, or to manage stock portfolios.

We aim principally to teach you to think rightly and rigorously about the divine and human good, so that if you do go on to pursue any of those other activities, you will do so as one knowing more deeply, both by natural reason and divine revelation, what the nature and end of a human being is.

Because that does not seem like a very “practical” use of one’s time, not many see the worth of such an undertaking. Perhaps you yourself are a little hesitant about just how contemplative and seemingly un-job-related your time here will be. Are you about to spend the next four years of your life with your head in the clouds? Might you be about to suffer the humiliation of appearing to join Socrates in his “thinkery,” and thereby give Aristophanes rich material with which to mock you?

Upon graduation, you might know what a Barbara syllogism is, or why it is necessary to posit prime matter and substantial form, you might be able to give a true definition of the soul, or state why God is not in any of the categories, but can the possession of what most regard as mere speculative “book knowledge” possibly make delaying your professional formation and career worthwhile? To most of the world, all this does not seem even to be knowledge, but just a bunch of outdated and useless opinions.

This reminds me of a story one of my colleagues once told me of a friend of his who graduated from the college and went on to get a Ph.D. in philosophy.  He met, and subsequently became engaged to a woman whose family was Filipino.  Eventually he travelled with his fiancée back to the Philippines so that he could meet the mother of his soon to be wife. Now this mother, as you can imagine, was at first thrilled to hear about her daughter’s match.  She was going to marry an American doctor after all.  You can imagine her surprise when she learned that her soon to be son in law was a “doctor” only inasmuch as he had a doctorate in philosophy.  When she realized her mistake, she scornfully looked him in the eyes and said, “You are a doctor of nothing!”  

But what if there were more to be known about the human condition and the nature of reality, more that was profound and life-changingly important, than was possible to acquire through the cultivation of professional skills and business acumen?

Perhaps you know someone who has expressed the same sentiment regarding your pursuit of a Catholic liberal education here at TAC. Undoubtedly, there are many who think that we are a “college of nothing!”  But what if there were more to be known about the human condition and the nature of reality, more that was profound and life-changingly important, than was possible to acquire through the cultivation of professional skills and business acumen? St. Thomas in his famous ‘prayer before study’ begged God to pour fourth a ray of His brightness into the dark places of his mind and to disperse from his soul “the two-fold darkness of sin and ignorance” into which all men are born.

If St. Thomas is right, then we come into a world that is dim and full of smoke and mirrors.  We arrive not simply without understanding of the true nature and meaning of things, but surrounded by manipulated and bewitching images that have their origin in disordered human appetite and unexamined judgment, in sin and ignorance. The life of our mind begins not just with common sense and self-evident principles, but in a fog of unreflected and incoherent concepts that tranquilize our understanding and beckon us to thoughtlessly mouth the stock phrases of our society.

Our Life in the Cave

If you are at least a sophomore, what I am saying should be reminding you of another prominent author in our program who makes a similar claim. In the seventh book of Plato’s Republic, Socrates famously constructs an allegorical “image,” as he says, “of our nature with respect to its education and lack of education.” (514a)

He asks us to imagine “an experience of the following kind.” Picture human beings as though they were in an underground cave with its distant entrance open to the outside light of the natural world far above.  Those residing in this underground cavern, Socrates explains, have been “in it from childhood with their legs and necks in bonds so that they are fixed” and can only see the cave wall in front of them. Their fetters make it impossible for them “to turn their heads around” to see what is happening behind them.   

If they could do so, they would notice that the light by which they see is not from the sun but “from a fire burning far above and behind them.  Between this fire and the prisoners, there is an elevated road, along which [lies] a wall, built like the partitions puppet handlers set in front of their audience.” (514b) Along this wall, Socrates relates, are other human beings carrying all sorts of artifacts and statues of men and other animals “which project above the wall” and thereby cast shadows onto the back of the cave.  These “shadows cast by the fire” are all that the prisoners can see.

Socrates ponders: If such people were able to discourse with one another about the things they had been perceiving and experiencing since birth, wouldn’t they believe that they were seeing, naming, and discussing real things? After all, the shadowy shapes are “out there” moving around apparently doing things. But in fact, what such men would assume to be the truth, Socrates concludes, would be “nothing other than the shadows of artificial things.”

“What a strange image and what strange prisoners!” one of his listeners exclaims.   “They are like us!” Socrates replies. (515a)

Like us? Like you and me? Is that possible? Can Socrates really intend this allegory as a true portrait of human nature in its want of education? And if so, should we find this image compelling?

Those of you who have completed Freshman Seminar know that Plato intends for us to interpret the statues in the parable as the individual natural bodies of the sensible world.  They represent particular men or dogs or palm trees.  The actual trees and animals outside the cave are to be understood as corresponding to the true essences or intelligible forms of those particular bodies. To know these essences would be to know the true nature or what-ness of those particulars.

What is Plato driving at?  We all have the experience of sensibly perceiving individual human beings. Socrates might see a man walking across the marketplace, the son of Diares for instance.  But is he truly seeing, truly sensing “man”? Is man, understood as some one kind of being, a proper object of sensation? Do we apprehend “what a human being is” through our senses? If so, what color is “man”? What sound is man? What taste? What smell?  A moment’s reflection let’s you know that “what a human being is” is not something your five senses can tell you.  

The same goes for “justice,” “love,” “right,” “obligation,” and “freedom.” Which of your five senses grants you understanding of what those are? None of them. These concepts have no sensible qualities. If we are actually naming some one kind of thing when we use those words, then their nature must be apprehended through some power beyond sensation.

But let’s get back to the cave.  We have not yet touched on one of the most interesting and perhaps least discussed aspects of the parable. The prisoners in the cave are not deluded because they see statues instead of real things.  Rather, in their “want of education,” the prisoners in the cave see only the shadows of the statues. Socrates is warning us that our experience of the world, our estimation of what things are like, is mediated through the lens of human manipulation and inherited thoughtlessness.  When we enter into our society’s public discourse about the way things are, we are entering into a conversational framework already mediated by the work of shadow casters.

Who are the people behind the puppet wall moving the statues? For us they are career politicians, press secretaries, PR firms, and media talking heads. They are corporate and government funded “researchers,” healthcare policy bureaucrats, and other managerial “experts”. They are content moderators, “trust and safety” officers, and AI chatbot algorithms. They are entertainment industry producers, marketing executives, and social media “influencers.” They are tabloid magazine publishers, activist journalists, and newspaper editorial boards.

But they are also you and I every time we project an image of ourselves for others to consume that is rooted in how we would like to be perceived, but not in how we actually are.

This social deluge of words and images works to fill our mind and imagination with quick and superficial conceptions about the true, the good, and the beautiful.  Our airwaves, internet feeds, textbooks, TV screens and print media are filled with vague and unexamined words and phrases that seem intelligible and commonly understood, but are in fact conceptually ambiguous and ultimately incoherent.  They are Platonic shadows and they will tranquilize our mind if we are not vigilant in living what Socrates called the examined life.

Tonight I want to focus on a particular part of the cave wall that is unique to our cultural reality here in the advanced democracies of the modern West.  My thesis is that moral and political discourse in contemporary secular society is nothing more than a set of Platonic shadows.  The dominant moral terms used by secular modernity, terms such as “rights,” “justice,” “ought,” “dignity,” obligation,” “duty,” or “freedom,” do not function in our society as rationally grounded or intelligible concepts coherently derived from some aspect of human nature or truth about reality. Rather, they exist as residual artifacts from a previous intellectual tradition about the nature of man. And because they have been uprooted from that tradition, these vestigial relics possess neither conceptual coherence nor rational foundation.

It is my further claim that it is only from the perspective of the insights of classical Catholic liberal education that one is in a position to see how secular modernity’s ethical concepts and debates are hopelessly irrational and self-deceiving.  If I am successful tonight, it will be because I have helped you to see how your education here at Thomas Aquinas College gives you the foundations for seeing why modern secular moral culture is in the dire and unresolvable predicament that it is in, and just what has been forgotten from the perennial philosophical tradition that gives rationality to our moral language and practice.

In telling this disturbing philosophical story of decline and fall, I am going to draw heavily upon the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, one of the most astute and historically informed Catholic moral philosophers currently alive. My plan is to integrate a few of his insights and arguments with several key parts of the curriculum that you are working through here at TAC.  I hope thereby to weave these strands of your education here into an overarching philosophical narrative and give you a kind of “big picture” of where you are in our civilization’s unfolding intellectual history.

Now given the small confines of an evening lecture, my treatment will necessarily be broad and somewhat cursory.  I believe it will be true and accurate, but there will unavoidably be certain positions, distinctions, qualifications, and objections that I must regretfully pass over.  However, I look forward to addressing some of those in the Q&A session with you later tonight.

Modern Morality as Vestigial Relic

As a way of illuminating the irrational condition of morality in late secular modernity, MacIntyre offers his own “disquieting” image.  It will perhaps be more appealing to you than Plato’s parable of the cave, given our current fascination with post-apocalyptic worlds.  Borrowing from Walter Miller’s provocative novel A Canticle for Liebowitz, MacIntyre asks us to picture the following sequence of events: A series of catastrophic environmental disasters destroy the functioning of civilization as we know it.  The mass devastation and breakdown are blamed on the natural sciences and those engaged in it. Riots ensue. Laboratories are destroyed. Books burned and physicists lynched. The powers that be outlaw the teaching of science and seek to imprison or execute the remaining custodians of this knowledge.

Years later, there is a reaction against this destructive fit of passion. Because the knowledge of it has been lost, people now seek to revive science and recover an understanding of what was once known. However, they now possess only scattered fragments of previous scientific theories. Half-chapters from the few surviving textbooks, partially charred pages from scattered journal articles, semi-intact scientific instruments whose use has been forgotten, are all cobbled together in a new set of practices that go by the name of “physics,” “chemistry,” and “biology.”

In such a world, MacIntyre tells us, “[c]hildren learn by heart the surviving portions of the periodic table and recite as incantations some of the theorems of Euclid.” Partial paragraphs from semi-burnt engineering manuals are copied and re-copied in illuminated manuscripts. Terms like “inertia” and “mass” are used in popular and academic discourse but without anyone really knowing where these terms came from or why they ultimately make sense. In short, people revere and practice “science” once again, but “[n]obody, or almost nobody,” MacIntyre writes, “realizes that what they are doing is not natural science in any proper sense at all.”[1]

We might add a final chapter to this story. Over the next couple of centuries the various attempts to justify and make sense of these conceptual relics of science are seen by the more penetrating observers of this effort to continually fail. No rational grounding for the practice of science is ever found or agreed upon. As a result, subjectivist and relativist theories of science emerge to account for the inability of this society’s educated class to make sense of its claims to knowledge of nature.

The intellectual culture of this world subsequently becomes a disorderly mixture of self-deceived promoters for the status quo and menacing subverters of its obviously implausible positions. And so our imagined dystopian civilization is left in an endless loop of un-self-aware superficiality, perpetual disagreement, and theoretical despair.

Now this story would be intriguing, even exciting, if it were just a story. However, MacIntyre intends for its import to be a bit more disturbing. He writes, “The hypothesis which I wish to advance is that in the actual world which we inhabit the language of morality is in the same state of grave disorder as the language of natural science in the imaginary world which I described. What we possess, if this view is true, are the fragments of a conceptual scheme, parts which now lack those contexts from which their significance derived. We possess indeed simulacra of morality, we continue to use many of [its] key expressions. But we have – very largely, if not entirely – lost our comprehension…of morality.” (AV, 2)

If MacIntyre is right, then there should be a philosophical account of the actual history of moral theory and practice in our civilization that corresponds to the three-stage history of decline and fall in our post-apocalyptic story.  In the first stage, moral concepts would coherently be part of a larger theoretical scheme which rendered them intelligible and justified.  An understanding of the good of man, the virtues and dignity proper to him, and the moral precepts by which he is ordered to his end conceptually follow from, a distinct account of human nature and its Divine Author.

A second stage would be characterized by a rejection of that underlying philosophical foundation.  The repudiation of this grounding rational framework leaves our inherited moral concepts free-floating and in want of explanation. Moral language and experience are now in need of a new theoretical foundation if they are to continue to be seen as signifying something real and knowable by reason. So in this stage one would expect to see, and in fact does see, a number of attempts to provide a new justification for traditional moral terms.  Unfortunately for this project, these inherited terms were conceptually intelligible only in light of the prior philosophical framework. In the reformulated view of reality, they are like old wine skin attempting to hold new wine.  

This brings us to the final and third stage of our history. It is characterized by profound and interminable disagreement between the various attempts to re-ground morality. These different projects are devastatingly successful in undermining their rivals’ positions. The general inability of any one position to rationally vindicate itself leads a growing number to the conclusion that there simply is no foundation for morality at all.  The claim that ethical utterance signifies something real that can be known by reason begins to be rejected and replaced by an ethical subjectivism.  Moral terms are seen by these theorists as nothing but expressions of power and arbitrary, non-rational preference.  Our history concludes with the moral culture of the secular modernity characterized by a shallow and vague rhetoric of common democratic “values,” a perpetual inability to resolve its moral conflicts, and the specter of relativism continually threatening to undermine the edifice of its moral self-understanding.

Can such a history be true? Did the intellectual development of modern Western culture actually suffer such a cataclysmic turn? In the remainder of my lecture I will briefly sketch and defend the outlines of just such a history and try to show you that many of the texts and authors which you will read and think through here give you the foundations for seeing the truth of this disquieting claim.

From Aristotle to Nietzsche and Back Again

Unsurprisingly, our story begins with the classical vision of the moral life that broadly characterized the ethical theorizing of our predecessor culture.  This vision, inaugurated by Socrates and Plato, developed and refined by Aristotle, and so brilliantly synthesized with Christian revelation by St. Thomas came, MacIntyre writes, “to dominate the European Middle Ages from the twelfth century onwards.” (AV, 52) We thankfully don’t need to present a complete historical account of the development of this moral framework because, as MacIntyre notes, “Its “basic structure is that which Aristotle analyzed in the Nicomachean Ethics.”  That being mostly sufficient for our purposes, let us turn to that great work in order to grasp how the perennial tradition grounded moral language and rendered its significations intelligible.

    a. Aristotle

The Juniors here tonight are one week into their study of the Nicomachean Ethics. What they will surely have noticed is that two concepts are front and center for Aristotle as he begins his treatment of moral philosophy.  These are the concept of “good” and the concept of “end.” The good he preliminarily defines as “that which all things desire.” Aristotle begins his book by noting that all human endeavors are essentially marked by an intentionality toward what is desirable: “Every art, every inquiry, every action, and every choice seems to aim at some good” (1094a1-2). Medical doctors aim at health. Carpenters at houses or furniture. Military strategy aims at victory. Students of logic seek the good of thinking well. These goods are the aim, the goal of those activities.

And this brings us to the second concept, that of “end” or, in the Greek, telos. It is evident that these goods just mentioned are sought as ends, as goals, as that for the sake of which we act. But not all ends are equal. Aristotle notes that the end of bridle making, which is a horse bridle, is for the sake of the art of horsemanship, which has the higher end of riding a horse. This end is itself, Aristotle continues, in the service of the art of military strategy.  A mounted soldier needs to fulfill his end so that that it can be at the service of the even higher art of generalship, whose end is victory. From the top to the bottom, each of these arts respectively dictates to the lower what end that lower art should be seeking so that it may serve the higher activity that it is ordered to.

Aristotle points out that this chain cannot be infinite. There must be a final end in a human’s choice and endeavor.  We do not choose everything for the sake of some yet further to be sought end, otherwise all desire and human action would be irrational and in vain. So there is some end which we ultimately choose for its own sake. Just about everyone, Aristotle notes, calls this end, “happiness,” for no one desires to be happy in order that they might then be something else. Rather everyone desires everything else in order that they might be happy.    

This is all true, but still very general. The more crucial question for the student of ethics to answer is what activity or activities directed toward the achievement of what end or set of ends, does happiness consist in?

Answering this question brings us to an absolutely crucial move early in the Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle runs through it so quickly that one might easily fail to notice its significance. In the course of less than two pages Aristotle lays out the theoretical basis for his entire conception of human virtue. All of his subsequent discussion, and all of the conceptual intelligibility and inferential justification regarding what makes for virtue and vice, praise and blame, and the ordering of human goods ultimately derives from what he proposes as the end or purpose of man.

To make his point, Aristotle introduces a third concept, that of something’s “work,” in Greek, its “ergon.” What he means by this term is something’s ‘natural task,’ its ‘proper job,’ its ‘specific function.’  Something’s “work” is either what it alone can do or can do better than anything else. For example, the “work” or “task” of a saw is cutting. The “work” of an eye is seeing color, a heart of pumping blood. A sculptor’s work is chiseling statues and a shoemaker’s is making shoes.  

As you can see from these examples, a thing’s work or task is also its purpose, its end, and the achievement of this, its highest good. What accomplishes or fulfills its “work” is a good instance of the kind of thing that it is. So a good soccer goalie is one who habitually prevents the other team from kicking the ball in his goal.

This point is quite important. If something has a work, a proper function, then the knowledge of what that thing is entails a knowledge of what its purpose and good is.  If I know what a goalie is, I also know what a good goalie is and I can further deduce what habits, what virtues are necessary in order to be a goalie able to do what goalies are supposed to do. I can also reason out what kinds of specific actions are good, and what bad, for a goalie to do based upon whether those acts order a goalie to realizing his end. Any activity on his part which frustrates that end is by its very nature bad goalie activity.  For example, if I see a goalie running laps around his own goal during a game, or positioning himself against one of the goal posts for a penalty kick, then I know that he is a bad goalie.

All this being the case, if man as man has a “work,” if not just carpenters, generals, and doctors, and not just eyes, hearts, and ears have a work, but a human being as a human being, and we can know it, then we can also know the purpose, the end, and therefore the good of man as such.  We can further deduce what characteristics would be virtuous for a human being, what vicious, and what actions would conform a man to his good and which wouldn’t.

Now Aristotle’s way of arriving at what man’s ergon is is almost unintelligible to the modern reader.  To most, his thinking here seems like a weirdly irrelevant factual observation that has randomly wandered into an ethics treatise. Aristotle’s brief reasoning is as follows: Because a thing’s ergon is what it alone can do or do better than anything else, man’s work, his proper function will be what is specific to human nature and activity.  This is not simply being alive and nourishing oneself. Palm trees also do that. It is not having a sensitive life. Man shares sensation with dogs, and sharks, and every other animal.

What remains, Aristotle writes, is “activity of soul in accord with reason.” And what kind of activity is that? It is living a life characterized by knowing truth and willing the good, of pursuing wisdom and friendship, and of using one’s reason to govern what is naturally governable by reason, such as our passions and emotions. Finally, the most proper and perfecting activity for a human being would consist in the most perfect operation of man’ most perfect power directed toward the most perfect object possible of that power, which would be the first and highest truth. Put more concretely, ultimate happiness would consist in contemplating God and alway acting in a way that orders one toward that end. To choose this life is “moral” and “praiseworthy” because it is a freely willed conformity to man’s proper activity arising from his specific nature.

Those of you who have finished Sophomore philosophy should be picking up on something important. Aristotle’s theoretical basis for determining the human good, and consequently, virtues and vices, and the moral precepts about what actions are good and bad for man, is rooted in his concept of nature, and of the soul, that he elucidated in the first two books of the Physics and in the De Anima. In other words, that any particular act or habit could be virtuous or vicious is dependent upon Aristotle’s more foundational claim that there is formal and final causality in nature, and thus in human nature.

Aristotle’s underlying teaching from the Physics and the De Anima that man’s soul is a substantial form actualizing him as one specific kind of being endowed with unique powers and inclinations to proper acts and ends is what ultimately bestows intelligibility upon his use of moral terms. This is not to say that one must know the argumentation of those difficult books of natural philosophy in order to know anything about morality, or to have a sense of right and wrong.  Human beings do not cease to have an intellect or lose all grasp of the moral order of human nature simply because their minds and characters have been formed by shallow ideas and questionable customs. But it is to say that if the teaching of those treatises is not true, then the conceptual basis for Aristotle’s whole account in the Ethics is destroyed.

Let me just quickly add that the same teaching, and the same conceptual foundation, is present, if we turn to St. Thomas’ account of the natural law in the Summa Theologiae. I will be very brief here and quote just one text from St. Thomas about how one would determine what precepts are contained in the natural law. He writes:

“To the natural law belongs everything to which a man is inclined according to his nature. Now each thing is inclined naturally to an operation that is suitable to it according to its form: thus fire is inclined to give heat. Wherefore, since the rational soul is the proper form of man, there is in every man a natural inclination to act according to reason: and this is to act according to virtue. Consequently, considered thus, all acts of virtue are prescribed by the natural law.” (ST, I-II, 94, 3)

In other words, the moral content and intelligibility of the natural law according to St. Thomas is entirely dependent upon man having what Aristotle called a substantial form, a non-sensible principle that makes man the one kind of thing he is and ordered to the specific ends that belong to his particular nature.

This necessary dependence of the knowledge of man’s good, and of right and wrong, upon the apprehension of human nature’s end is central to the perennial philosophical account of the moral life from Socrates to St. John Paul II.  

To complete it, one need only add the metaphysical inference that nature so conceived as acting for the sake of an end entails an intelligent Author of that nature. Intentionality toward a purpose that is good is the hallmark of intellect. Nature being so understood, the perennial tradition recognizes God as the Divine Source of the human good and thus as both the Author of the moral law and the ultimate end of all human striving toward happiness.  Only so conceived can there be moral content in the appeal to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”

    b. Bacon and Hume

The second stage of our three-fold history of decline and fall begins when the dominant philosophers of early modernity, who otherwise make some truly brilliant advances in our scientific study of nature, repudiate the Aristotelian principles that made it possible to think of palm trees, dogs, and men as unified beings that actually exist and act in the world.   As Newton put it in the preface to his Principia, “the moderns, foregoing substantial forms and occult qualities, have undertaken to subject the phenomena of nature to mathematical laws.”

This reductive approach was necessary, according to Newton’s forebear Francis Bacon, because natural philosophy had up till then been hopelessly corrupted “by a combination of superstition and theology.”[2]  Prior thinking about nature had suffered the “greatest harm” by those “who introduce abstract forms and final causes” into it. Bacon continues:

“[H]uman understanding is…given to abstractions and assumes to be constant those things that are in flux.  But rather than turn Nature into abstractions, it is better to dissect her, as did the school of Democritus, which delved further into Nature than others.  Matter rather should be our study and its schematisms and changes of schematism…for forms are fictions of the human mind” (NO, 61).

If you have been following my account, you will notice that this move has more than merely scientific repercussions. To say that all natural bodies, the human included, are nothing but collections of more basic materials and that their intelligibility can be entirely derived from dissection or mathematical quantification of force is to repudiate the teaching on substantial form and final causality that we saw to underly Aristotle and St. Thomas’ teaching on the human good. No longer is there conceived to be an intelligible form constituting man in his essence and ordering human nature to its proper acts and ends. Moral terms such as “good,” “ought,” virtue,” and “right” are now deprived of the conceptual foundation from which they were rationally derivable and which rendered them knowable as true statements about human nature.

This fact was not lost on the philosophers of the Enlightenment. And so a new effort to deduce the content of morality from what was left of human nature, after it had been stripped of final causality, had to be attempted. Accordingly, as MacIntyre notes, “in the late seventeenth and…eighteenth century…the project of an independent rational justification of morality becomes not merely the concern of individual thinkers, but central to Northern European culture.” (AV, 39)  It was an “independent rational justification,” as MacIntyre characterizes it, because, with its commitment to the new conception of nature, rationality, and freedom, nothing beyond the material aspects of human nature or the instrumental use of reason remained.

It’s important here to pause and be clear about just what was left of human nature for those thinkers engaged in this project. To that end, let us turn to the menacing David Hume who very logically concludes in a book that you will read in Junior Seminar, that the sum total of possible human experience is now contracted to the objects of our five senses and to the interior passions and emotions to which those sensations give rise.  Because there are no substantially unifying forms to be apprehended from nature, all human experience is ultimately reducible to discrete, atomized, simple impressions of sensation and interior passion. Individual colors, tastes, textures, shapes, smells, sounds, pleasures, pains, desires, and aversions are the solitary bricks out of which man then constructs some pragmatic picture of the world based purely on the regularities of custom and habit.

Remember, reason is no longer a power of human nature that can grasp something of the substance and essence of things. It isn’t a faculty ordered to apprehending the various powers and actions of organisms, for those don’t exist in our brave new world of mechanism and materialism. Accordingly, there is nothing left for reason to be but a procedural tool, a purely formal means by which to analyze the logical relationships between our various names and ideas. As Thomas Hobbes, the founding theorist of modern totalitarian, put it, “When a man reasoneth, he does nothing else but…conceive of the consequence of…names.”[3] Hume says essentially the same thing when he writes, “Reason or science is nothing but the comparing of ideas and the discovery of their relations.” [4]

This merely logical understanding of reason that establishes no more than a universal consistency among our ideas leads Hume to the seemingly inescapable conclusion that ethical judgments cannot be a deliverance of reason. “Morality,” he writes, “is…more properly felt, than judged of.” (THN, 470) Passions, sentiments, pains, and pleasures are the only thing remaining in human nature that can induce pursuit or avoidance of what is good and bad, including the morally good and bad. Hume therefore concludes, “An action…is virtuous or vicious…because its view causes a pleasure or uneasiness of a particular kind.” Were I to see a murder, for example, I would feel a sense of repugnance and disapprobation, a kind of moral revulsion. But here is the important thing to note. This feeling of repugnance is simply a matter of fact, a descriptive psychological event.

As such, this feeling cannot rationally signify some binding moral obligation or exceptionless ethical norm. On the contrary, reason is only an instrument and “slave of the passions,” as Hume put it (THN, 415). I might be drawn to certain feelings of approbation and avoidant of those that make me feel repugnance, but what I cannot do is rationally say that I ought to pursue the one and avoid the other.  This word “ought” is a strange new arrival, Hume notes, a novel and logically mysterious relation that has supposedly arisen between sensations and feelings.  In truth, it is a term illogically trespassing on our imagination. Moral oughts cannot magically arise out of an ocean of descriptive psychological matters of fact.

“A reason should be given,” Hume therefore demands, “for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.” (THN, 469) Within the prior Aristotelian understanding of human nature a quite rational answer can be given to this question of how an ought can be derived from an apprehension of what is. But once the pioneers of secular modernity threw formal and final causality into the dustbin of history, no such deduction is possible, and therefore no intelligible answer to Hume can be given.

Nevertheless, the Enlightenment still gave it the old college try.  Among its various efforts, two dominant moral theories emerged that have continued to heavily influence moral reasoning in secular modernity. These two schools of ethics each respectively tried to ground moral reasoning on one of the two residual aspects of human nature that we have been speaking about, the first being sentiments of pleasure and pain, and the second reason’s capacity for discerning universal, logical consistency existing between its judgments.  

I have to be appallingly brief here because I need to get us back to the Cave. But my main claim here is going to be that this conception of human nature stripped of formal and final causality necessarily doomed these attempts to reground morality.

    c. Bentham and Mill

The first of the two positions emerges out of the Humean tradition of thinking about morality in terms of psychological feeling and pleasure and pain. It goes by the name of utilitarianism. On the utilitarian view, the morally right action is that which promotes the greatest amount of pleasure or utility for the most amount of people.  The pleasing and the useful are alone good and the sole material of happiness. What is painful and harmful are the opposite.  According to utilitarianism, therefore, one ought always to act in such a way as to bring about the greatest amount of pleasure and utility for the greatest number of people. To act in this way is the very meaning of acting “rightly.”

The first thing to note about this ethical position is that it is a form of consequentialism. Moral acts derive their entire worth from the consequences that they bring about, not from the nature of the act itself or some intrinsic worth, or dignity or right inhering in human beings.  What this means is that no act, considered by itself and without reference to the amount of pleasure or pain that it brings about and the number of people benefitted or harmed, can be considered good or bad, right or wrong. Thus certain actions traditionally considered to be evil might actually be the right thing to do if such actions maximize pleasure for the most number of people. It would seem to follow, then, that if the pain brought about by killing off a few undesirables was far outweighed by the pleasure that it makes possible for the rest of society, then it would seem to maximize utility and the be the right thing to do. One thinks of something like euthanasia for the expensively sick. But regardless of this example, there can be for utilitarianism no such things as intrinsically wrong acts, and hence no basis within the theory for ultimately inalienable rights.

The most natural question to raise about the principle of maximizing pleasure for the maximum number of people is the following: What rational or psychological reason can be given for why someone should obey this principle if it conflicts with their own pleasure maximization other than that one might feel bad about it, and thus diminish one’s one pleasure? Why always act for the happiness of the “greatest number” and not simply for oneself, or at least one’s own family or tribe? Without some prior, which is to say, pre-utilitarian moral principle dictating that one ought to act for the benefit of others even in the face of pain and at the cost of one’s own pleasure, there is simply no good answer to this question.

The founder of utilitarianism himself, Jeremy Bentham, begins his central treatise on morality by saying, “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do….The chain of causes and effect are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all that we do.”[5] If this is indeed the case, the only possible motivation I could have for acting for the benefit of another would be some personal pleasure it gave me or pain it spared me.

Barring a higher vision of human nature than the one secular modernity has left itself with, some form of psychological hedonism seems to be the only final reason that can be given for what we call altruistic behavior. To propose that something like the effects of evolutionary psychology have instilled in us dispositions towards group centered behavior only invites the question: why ought I to obey psychological impulses caused by blind mechanical forces that will diminish my own pleasure and utility?

But even supposing one were to accept the utilitarian “greatest happiness principle” for the greatest number as an ethical norm for governing one’s actions, the theory is still hopelessly deficient and without grounds for providing meaningful direction for one’s moral activity.

To begin with, whose ranking of pleasure and pain is to count in our calculus and on the basis of what is such a ranking to be established? What pleases one man immensely might be thin gruel for another.  Do I act so as to maximize people’s pleasure by promoting more cartoon watching, painting, drinking more Guinness, working in soup kitchens, or praying the Rosary?  Is the pleasure from one Rosary equal to 5 Guinnesses? Or the other way around? Should we act according to the utilitarian calculus of Alcibiades or Cato? Without an understanding of human nature as ordered by formal and final causality, there is simply no objective basis for morally ranking different pleasures as higher or lower, as more worthy or less worthy, as nobler or baser.

And just exactly who is to be included among “the greatest number”? When I perform my pleasure calculus for maximizing others’ happiness, whose interest ought I to be considering? My entire local community? The nation state in which I live? Or should it just be all human beings presently alive on the planet? What about future generations? Should the pleasure of those just about to be born count? What about other sentient beings? Should the pleasure of all sensitive creatures count? You will notice that to give any one of these as an answer as opposed to one of the others will change what “the right thing to do” is according to a utilitarian calculus.

But utilitarianism itself cannot answer any of these questions even though they are pressing, morally substantive concerns. Rather, the theory needs them to have already been answered in order to begin reasoning in a utilitarian manner. And so, MacIntyre concludes, “it follows that the notion of the greatest happiness of the greatest number is a notion without any clear content at all.” (AV, 64) The account of human nature upon which the utilitarian theory was constructed is simply incapable of rationally securing or giving definite form to its central claims.

    d. Kant

Let us move on, then, to the other big contender in modernity’s project to make sense out of its moral experience. This tradition begins with Immanuel Kant, whom the seniors no doubt fondly remember as the man who tried to convince them for several weeks last year that their minds have no access whatsoever to the truth of things as they are in themselves, but only to appearances that human consciousness itself constructs. Human reason in its theoretical activity, according to Kant, actually makes the world we perceive to be what it is, and thus forever bars us from arriving at any actual knowledge of reality or God.  

This prompted the witty German poet, Heinrich Heine, to refer to Kant as the Robespierre of German philosophy. Robespierre, you will recall, was the architect of the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror. His Committee of Public Safety condemned thousands of aristocrats and political enemies to prison and the guillotine, culminating in the beheading of Louis XVI. But Heine thought Kant was even more of a baller than Robespierre, for the latter only executed a king, but Kant, that “arch-destroyer in the realm of thought,” as Heine described him, “surpassed Robespierre in terrorism,” because the quiet philosopher from Konigsberg successfully snuffed out the life of God from subsequent European intellectual culture.

But we’re not here to talk about Kant’s demolition of “dogmatic” metaphysics, but rather the tradition of moral theorizing that he inaugurated.  In a couple of weeks the seniors will once again return to Kant to read his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. There Kant institutes a tradition of moral reasoning that seeks to base itself on mere formality, which is to say, the pure universality of reason as such. Kant attempted what Hume thought impossible, namely to ground ethics in the purely instrumental operation of reason alone.

Kant accepted David Hume’s claim that any experienced good, like chocolate or friendship, any appeal to what is pleasing or fulfilling, is only a contingent feeling or psychological inclination.  No necessity or universality, no categorically binding moral obligation can be rationally derived from such experience.  In this way Kant agrees with Hume that no universal moral “ought” emerges from empirical experience.

From where then is man supposed to derive an understanding of moral law and unconditional obligation? And how are our the practical principles according to which we act to be formed so as to be in conformity with the universally binding demands of morality? Because we cannot with Hume, Bentham, or Mill appeal to pleasure or inclination or happiness as a source of categorical obligation, and because reason is no longer thought to be a power that can rationally grasp the universal good of a nature, “nothing is left,” Kant says, “but the mere form of a universal legislation.”[6] In other words, the concept of duty is to be derived only through the exercise of universal logical consistency in our practical judgments. If an act of will is based upon a maxim that can at the same time be universally willed to be the maxim upon which every other rational being acts, then such an act of will is in conformity with duty.  

What does this mean? It means that the moral law is rationally derived from nothing other than the formal idea of universal legislation as such. So if I then wanted to test the morality or lawfulness of any proposed action, I could subject the maxim upon which it is based to a kind of logical test. Can I will that the principle I am acting upon become a universal law for every rational agent? If I can, then the maxim passes the test and is in conformity with duty.  For example, if I find myself in a final exam and I haven’t studied, would it be moral to act upon the maxim “Cheat whenever it is necessary in order to pass one’s test”?  Kant says that when you try to universalize this maxim you immediately see that your success in cheating depends upon making yourself an exception to the universal understanding that test taking presupposes.

Kant calls this principle of formal universalizability the “categorical imperative.” He states that it is the one “supreme principle of morality.” That being the case, we can ask whether a merely formal account of the grounding of morality such as Kant proposes is a viable path to rationally ground our moral experience.  

For his part, Kant was convinced that it was. He thought that his categorical imperative entails that everyone must treat everyone else as an end, and not merely as a means. He believed that his new principle would rationally ground human dignity and the rights of the autonomous individual. Indeed, he assumed that it would preserve all of the major precepts of traditional morality. But this is simply not the case.

Kant’s most famous philosophical successor, the daunting Hegel, did not think so. Hegel argued that “it is impossible” to derive “particular duties from the above determination of duty as absence of contradiction, as [mere] formal correspondence.”  “The criterion of non-contradiction,” he writes, “is productive of nothing.” Hegel even goes so far as to say that “it is possible to justify any wrong or immoral mode of action by this means…”[7]

Here we can quote MacIntyre to elucidate Hegel’s point. Regarding Kant’s claim that consistent universal legislating entails that I treat everyone else as an end, MacIntyre writes, “I can without any inconsistency whatsoever flout it; ‘Let everyone except me be treated as a means [and not as an end]’ may be immoral, but it is not inconsistent…there is no… inconsistency in willing a universe of egotists all of whom live by this maxim.  It might be inconvenient…but…to invoke considerations of convenience would in any case be to introduce just that prudential reference to happiness which Kant aspires to eliminate from all consideration of morality.” (AV 46)

So Kantianism sadly proves to be no more successful at finding new rational grounds for modernity’s inherited moral concepts than did utilitarianism.

    e. Nietzsche

It is no wonder, then, that a penetrating but ruthless nihilist like Friedrich Nietzsche would eventually come along and point out that this whole project is a self-deceiving farce. Without a transcendent source as divine sanction, morality is nothing but an irrational collection of Platonic shadows. Only this time there is no exit from the cave, no imitative statues and no outside world. Human life is nothing but shadow and manipulation.  There is simply no purpose to anything, no good or evil in anything that happens, no way anything is “supposed to be.”

Nietzsche sneers, “when the God who sanctions it is missing. The beyond is absolutely necessary if morality is to be maintained.”

With Nietzsche, then, begins the third and final stage of our history of decline and fall.  As the seniors will find out next semester, he is the first of the “post-moderns” to notice that, without a basis beyond what the new conception of reason, science, and nature can yield, the moral discourse of secular enlightenment can only be a set of superstitious totem concepts that must be discarded with the same vehemence with which the Enlightenment discarded divine law. Modern utilitarians, democrats, and socialists are all, in Nietzsche’ eyes, the embodiment of “naïveté.” “As if morality could survive,” Nietzsche sneers, “when the God who sanctions it is missing. The beyond is absolutely necessary if morality is to be maintained”[8] But the “beyond” of Divine causality, intelligible essence and final causality is precisely what secular modernity no longer finds believable.

This is the meaning of Nietzsche’s famous proclamation that ‘God is dead” to the modern European mind. But what that mind does not yet realize, Nietzsche insists, is the significance and consequence of this development.  We have, he explains, philosophically “unchained the earth from its sun” and are now “straying as through an infinite nothing.”[9] Our higher culture is faced with a “long…sequence of breakdown, destruction, ruin and cataclysm” in which  “the whole of our European morality” must now “collapse.”  (GS, 343) As extreme as this conclusion appears to be, one has to concede that there is a disturbing logic to it, once having bought in to the assumptions of secular modernity. Which raises the question, was that a wise bargain to have made in the first place? Or was the rejection of Aristotelian formal and final causality a catastrophic philosophical mistake that has brought our culture face to face with moral nihilism?

MacIntyre puts this question as follows: “Nietzsche’s moral philosophy is matched specifically against Aristotle’s by virtue of the historical role which each plays.  For… it was because a moral tradition of which Aristotle’s thought was the intellectual core was repudiated…that the Enlightenment project of discovering new rational secular foundations for morality had to be undertaken. And it was because that project failed…that Nietzsche and all his existentialist and emotivist successors were able to mount their apparently successful critique of all previous morality. Hence the defensibility of the Nietzschean position turns in the end on the answer to the question: was it right in the first place to reject Aristotle?” (AV, 117)

The answer to this question is of the utmost consequence, MacIntyre explains, for “either one must follow through the aspirations of the collapse of the different versions of the Enlightenment project until there remains only the Nietzschean diagnosis…or one must hold that the Enlightenment project was not only mistaken, but should never have taken place in the first place.  There is no third alternative.” (AV, 118)


I want to conclude this lecture by taking these two alternatives with us as we return to where we first began tonight, the cave. Students, whether you like it or not, you are attending college in Plato’s cave. The power and truth of this parable has never been more relevant than it is for us today. The dominant forms of moral discourse within the major institutions and the public arenas of our civilization are in fact Platonic shadows. As I said earlier, terms such as “rights,” “duty,” “obligation,” “dignity,” “justice,” and “freedom” do not function as rational concepts in secular modernity. Although its use of such vocabulary does vaguely, indistinctly, and confusedly reflect human moral experience, it does so without any clear conceptual intelligibility or recognizable foundation.
If you attend a United Nations conference or turn on CNN or read the pages of the New York Times, you will notice people stridently using our civilization’s common moral rhetoric, but what you will not observe is any self-awareness that the user’s of that language not only possess no common understanding of its terms, but also lack any means of rationally justifying the use of such language.

Asking even the most rudimentary questions about the most frequently used terms reveals this to be so. Take the concept of a “human right,” for example.   What makes something a human right? Where do human rights come from? How does one know when someone is making a legitimate rights claim or when someone is just expressing a personal or group preference? And on the basis of what aspect of secular modernity’s conception of reality or nature is a ‘human right’ rationally deduced? Our culture has no answer to these questions, no ability to answer these questions, and alarmingly either no awareness or no concern that this is the case.  Secular rights claims are as rationally justifiable as are claims about the existence of unicorns (Cf. AV, 69) and yet almost no one seems to notice this. As Socrates said, the dwellers in the cave simply assume that the shadows are real.

I have been arguing tonight that it is only from the perspective of Catholic liberal education that one can see why our culture is in this absurd situation. It is my hope that my words will have illumined something of the world in which you live and further that they will have moved you to give yourself seriously to the contemplative adventure that is your liberal education here. Most especially I hope that you will give yourself to a sustained consideration of Aristotle’s teaching on nature and final causality. It is one of the lost treasures of our civilization.

You are attending one of the few institutions of higher education that takes Aristotle seriously enough to be able to answer the question of whether or not it was right for secular modernity to reject this core aspect of perennial philosophy.  Please do not squander this opportunity. So underclassmen, when you take Sophomore philosophy, do not simply treat it as a class. Treat it as a moment in your life when you have the opportunity to deeply reflect upon your experiences of nature and of being alive. Allow Aristotle to propose to you what one would need to think about the kinds of causes and principles at work in the natural world if your lived experience is to make any sense, and if Nietzsche is not to be right.  Keep your soul open and attentive to the order and intelligibility in your experience. If you do, you will be responding to Plato’s admonition to see through the shadows flickering on the wall. There is a Way up to the light. There is a Truth beyond the shadows. There is a Life we are meant for. So let us all together strive to ascend out of the cave and toward that divine Light of the World that lovingly shines down on us. Thank you.

[1] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 1.

[2] Francis Bacon, Novum Organum (Chicago: Open Court, 1998), 71.

[3] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1994), 110.

[4] David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 446.

[5] Jeremy Bentham, Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation in John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, Utilitarianism and Other Essays (New York: Penguin Books, 1987), 65.

[6] Immanual Kant, Critique of Practical Reason (New York, Barnes and Noble Books, 2004), 12. [Chapter 1, section 4]

[7] G.W.F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 162-3. [II, section 3, subsection 135]

[8] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), 253.

[9]  Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), 181. [Sec. 125]