Author Archive

Conference Lecture on Jacques Maritain

Hey Guys! I’m going to a conference in South Bend this October, and thought y’all might like to see the topic I’m speaking on. The conference will be at Holy Cross College, hosted by the Society of Catholic Social Scientists. I’m giving a panel lecture called “Lessons from the Friendship of Jacques Maritain with Saul Alinsky”:

Students of Catholic neo-Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain may be surprised to find out that Maritain was a longtime friend of the famous (or infamous) community organizer from Chicago, Saul Alinsky. Interest in Saul Alinsky and his books has grown enormously in recent years, thanks to the election of a famous fan of Rules for Radicals, President Barack Obama. It is only a matter of time before the reader of Alinsky’s works repeatedly comes across the name of Jacques Maritain, the man Alinsky called his “spiritual father.” The affinity between Maritain and Alinsky seems paradoxical considering the difference between Maritain’s Christian natural law view and Alinsky’s overtly Machiavellian approach to politics. This paper will inquire into what the exact nature of the relationship was between Maritain and Alinsky by comparing their correspondence to their respective individual works.
For any given premise found in Machiavelli’s Prince, a similar premise can be found in Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals; “the ends justify the means,” “it is better to be feared than loved,” and “the natural thing is to desire to acquire” all find their places in Alinsky’s work. Jacques Maritain had a very different view toward Machiavelli, writing several anti-Machiavellian passages in his classic text, Man and the State. Maritain sees two different kinds of Machiavellianism– Moderate Machiavellianism and Absolute Machiavellianism. These two modes are tyrannical, mirroring Aristotle’s description of the two modes of preserving tyranny found in the Politics. Maritain claims that Moderate Machiavellianism, which Alinsky seems to advocate, will ultimately lead to Absolute Machiavellianism because it exempts politicians from acknowledging they have performed an evil action. Maritain suggests political realism, but not one that undermines the regime by calling evil “good.”
Jacques Maritain’s letter congratulating Saul Alinsky on writing Rules for Radicals contains these criticisms of Machiavellianism, and shows that Maritain in fact did not agree with Alinsky’s political teachings. Maritain’s tone in the letter is friendly, but he clearly disagrees with Alinsky’s teachings. Maritain says in essence to Saul Alinsky, “You know better than that.” This form of friendly correction treated Saul Alinsky not as an enemy to be hated, but as a confused, good man.
In appraising the Maritain-Alinsky connection, I argue that Maritain should not be criticized for associating with this man in the least bit. Rather, I think the correspondence shows that Jacques Maritain spoke “the truth in love” to Saul Alinsky, and that there were some positive effects on Alinsky’s life as a result of this friendship.

We’re the Happiest University in the Country; How ’bout about that, Dallas

Howdy y’all, I’m coming back to Dallas this Wednesday for a week and a half! Neal is getting hitched, so I wasn’t about to miss that. ‘Til then, I’ve written one last article for the “Claremont Independent;” tell me what you think.

“The ‘Happiest Campus in the Country’? What Aristotle can tell us about true Happiness” by Christopher Wolfe

For those who have not heard, Claremont McKenna is officially the “Happiest College in the Country.” In a ranking from the Daily Beast website, the Claremont Colleges took four of the top six spots for happiness, with good old Pitzer even coming in at 22. To be called “happy” is serious praise for Claremont, and we should be proud. But before we get too proud, we should ask ourselves: “What does this happiness consist of?” To be honest, the standards that the Daily Beast used to measure our happiness were not what should measure happiness. I would argue that unfortunately, Claremont McKenna is not the happiest college in the country. I say this because of what happiness actually is.
Aristotle offers the best account of what happiness is. The Greek word Aristotle uses for happiness is eudaimonia, which literally means “blessed.” Certainly, this broadest sense of “happiness” could accurately be applied to Claremont. A very large number of the students here are happy with the university, they are satisfied with it. They feel “blessed” to be going to Claremont considering the alternatives. But we should question whether that satisfaction makes our lives truly happy. What Aristotle means when he talks about happiness is the best human life possible, a life “in accordance with the best and most complete activity.” Many have different opinions about what that best life is, but as the argument of Aristotle unfolds, all but one of these alternatives prove incomplete.
Some say that the best life is experiencing the most pleasurable states possible. If this is true, Claremont would have a pretty good claim at happiness. The Daily Beast gave the schools high ratings for quality of food, nightlife, and fair weather; these pleasant circumstances are what really earned Claremont the ranking of “Happiest.” In looking at the faces of people on campus, most do appear joyful, which is certainly an aspect of what it means to be happy. But a happy exterior isn’t everything. We may feel that we are happy, but on reflection, we know that we are not completely happy. As Aristotle says, pleasure is not a self-sufficient end; it is a feeling that accompanies activities that may be high or low. There are some pleasures that should not be pursued — the ones accompanying vicious actions. A happy life is not the one in accordance with the maximum base pleasure; the person who thinks this mistakes being well with doing well materially.
Happiness is life in accordance with the best activity, which Aristotle shows to be contemplation. Incoming students at the Claremont Colleges have exceedingly high test scores, and are smart and engaged in the classroom. Are Claremont students happy, then, because they think more than other students? If a person is “smart,” is this enough to make him happy? Absolutely not. The intellect is more than a simple on-and-off switch that when engaged makes us happy. A way of life, not just an activity, must be embraced. When illicit drug usage, sexually immorality, and “the Vagina Monologues” rule the day in Claremont, no amount of intellectual excellence will be able to overcome these moral failings. A complete life of virtue is required, in which contemplation is the sign or specific difference of happiness.
The best way of life for Aristotle is characterized by contemplation, but not limited to this virtue. The standard for the best life which Aristotle mentions in his Eudemian Ethics is the “noble” life, kalakagathia. The noble life consists of the “whole” of the virtues, the best of the practical and the best of the intellectual, accompanied by appropriate pleasures. Aristotle says that nobility is “whatever mode of choosing and of acquiring things good by nature — whether goods of body or wealth or friends or the other goods — will best promote the contemplation of God, that is the best mode; this is the standard of nobility.” Indeed, nobility is the fulfillment of those qualities of life which of which the Daily Beast’s “happiness” is only a pale and incomplete reflection.
There is one more requirement that Aristotle says is necessary to judge a life to be happy. The life must be “complete,” — that is, the person must be dead. As he says, “one day or a short time does not make a person blessed and happy.” You should now realize that the standard I have adopted from Aristotle concerning happiness makes it impossible to judge any college student to be happy. This is true, at least until that college student’s full life has been lived and can be appraised. However, the standard of nobility is something that a Claremont student can aim at in his choices and activities. Nobility is like a “snapshot” of a whole life, that if continued could be called “happy.” We should aim at nobility, and hopefully a happy life will result.
I would not encourage anyone to stop seeking happiness. If you have joy, do not give it up. At the same time, do not tolerate evil. We should speak the truth in charity, with smiles on our faces. Perhaps the Claremont Independent should publish the “100 Most Noble Colleges in America;” Claremont McKenna would still be on my list.

Liberal Arts in Claremont, CA

Hey dudes,

Just wanted to show off this article I’ve written for the Claremont Independent, the Conservative student magazine on campus here. I showed up to one of their editorial meetings and they asked if I’d write an article on literature and the liberal arts; I said, “heck yes.” It was interesting writing it because Claremont McKenna is a secular liberal arts college. I saw this as an opportunity to introduce these guys to some Catholic voices on the liberal arts. Hope you like it,


Some Authorities on Literature and the Liberal Arts

Earlier this semester, I had the pleasure of attending a debate at the Athenaeum titled “Is CMC a True Liberal Arts College?” This was an interesting topic for debate, because the wording of the title implies two questions. First, “what exactly is a ‘true’ liberal arts college?” Second “should CMC be a true liberal arts college?” The debaters primarily discussed the second question, with conversation focusing on practical issues, mainly on the possibility of getting a job after college. From my vantage point, I did not the debaters adequately answered the first question before they moved on to rejecting or accepting it as the purpose of CMC. This is completely understandable; the liberal arts is a difficult subject to give its full due. I myself cannot give a full account of the liberal arts, but I do know of some authorities within the tradition and within the Claremont community that are up to the challenge of answering some of the more pressing questions surrounding the liberal arts.

Q. 1: Cliff’s Notes, anyone? Well, Cliff’s Notes do work well as shortcuts. The benefit of shortcuts is that they make exchanges quick, efficient, and cost-effective. Unfortunately, the opposite characterizes the leisured discussion of the free people. Leisure, as philosopher Josef Peiper says, is “the basis of culture;” in order to be open to what the liberal arts offer, we must be in a passive state of mind. I refer the reader to a 1990 CSPAN interview with Mortimer J. Adler, co-founder of the Great Books Program. A caller from Canada phoned in and asked Adler what he thought of his idea for a speed-reading program of the classics. With a visceral reaction Adler replied:

“No! You can’t speed read them. I think you have to read them word by word. You have to ponder the sentences. When I’m reading a great book I never read faster than 20 pages an hour, sometimes slower, because it’s hard, hard work… I never read more than an hour or an hour and a half, because I get tired.”

When asked if he had to choose between speed-reading the classics or not reading the classics, Adler said definitively, “No reading.”

Q. 2: What do liberal arts do for the human person? As a virtuous activity, studying the liberal arts has its benefits as well as its hard work. To those who support CMC’s focus on the liberal arts, the rewards are too important to be overlooked. Professor John Farrell spoke eloquently on the subject: “The liberal arts teach you how to approach the most important question concerning human beings, how to live. Before you can pursue that question, you need to have some sense of what the world is, what human beings are, and how they relate to each other.” Literature lays the foundation for answering this all-important question through the most natural of activities, which we have all engaged in since childhood- listening to stories. We need to listen to stories in order to understand man and his place before asking “what is the best way of life?” As Professor Farrell puts it, “the study of literature (including poetry) is the study of stories and story-making. All of our lives are guided by the stories we inhabit—stories about the world past and present, what it is and how it got here. We invest in stories about our nations, our institutions, the genesis and pursuit of our ideals, our own families, and our personal course of life.” Put in these terms, the liberal arts come to look less “useless” and in fact necessary for living.

Q. 3: What is the relationship of literature to the other sciences? The question of organization of the disciplines is a critical one. If Claremont McKenna is to be a true” liberal arts college, it must know which discipline is its queen. Without a hierarchy, there is no best way of life proposed, and academia reverts to its default relativistic mode. I would like to close this discussion on literature and the liberal arts with a reflection from John Henry Newman:

“The book of nature is called Science, the book of man is called Literature. Literature and Science, thus considered, nearly constitute the subject matter of Liberal Education… Science is grave, methodical, logical; with Science then she (theology) argues, and opposes reason to reason. Literature does not argue, but declaims and insinuates; it is multiform and versatile: it persuades instead of convincing, it seduces, it carries captive; it appeals to the sense of honour, or to the imagination, or to the stimulus of curiosity; it makes its way by means of gaiety, satire, romance, the beautiful, the pleasurable.” (from The Idea of the University)