Tuesday, June 14, 2011
I have just returned from Italy, where I gave the graduation address for the Master of Civic Education program at the Ethica Institute in the charming city of Asti. It was a wonderful opportunity to engage some of Italy's most gifted and promising young intellectuals. Ethica is performing a great service to the Italian nation by promoting the rigorous and appreciative study of civic values that must be in place if a regime of republican liberty is to be sustained. Scholars representing a spectrum of political viewpoints are assisting in the project. Students at Ethica have the great advantage of hearing the best arguments that can be made on different sides of questions that are at the center of Italian politics today. It is often lamented by public spirited Italians that civic discourse in their nation has degenerated into the rankest forms of partisanship. They say that political discussions frequently amount to exchanges of insults and other forms of verbal abuse. Ethica is doing something to change that. Its efforts deserve praise and support.
While in Italiy, I also had the opportunity to participate in a debate with my dear friend and colleague Maurizio Viroli at the Collegio Milano. Professor Viroli is a distinguished scholar of the history of political thought. The debate concerned a topic that is of vital interest to Italians as well as Americans: religion and politics. Professor Viroli, though a confirmed secularist and man of the left, spoke so much truth and good sense that I had trouble finding points to disagree with him about! I suspect that his very positive evaluation of the role of religious faith in civic life scandalized some European secularists in the audience. He skillfully used the work of Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam to support his position. As I said to the audience, I mainly felt like shouting "Amen, brother. Hallelujah!"
Curiously, the one major point of disagreement between us turned out to be about the interpretation of a passage in the Bible. Almost in passing, I offered an interpretation of the teaching of Genesis that man is made in the image and likeness of God that stressed the God-likeness of the human capacities for reason and freedom. Following Aquinas---an Italian, of course---I proposed that our dignity as human beings is anchored in our nature as free and rational creatures. (By "rational" I mean, and Aquinas meant, the rich, Aristotelian conception of rationality, not the thin modern conception that instrumentalizes reason and reasoning and reduces rationality to a form of calculation or even computation.) Professor Viroli rejected that interpretation, proposing instead that the Biblical claim is that man is God-like in his capacity for caritas (charity, love). My rejoinder was that caritas or love is properly understood, not as something standing in contradistinction to reason and reasoning, but fundamentally as a rational power. (This strikes some modern ears as odd, mainly because so many people have bought into the instrumentalized, and thus impoverished, understanding of rationality as basically a form of calculation.) Love is not primarily a matter of feeling or emotion, but rather an act of the will (which, as Aquinas rightly noted, is a rational appetite). To be sure, love has its affective dimensions, but it is above all an activity---the active willing of the good of the other for the sake of the other. It is not an accident that love (like laughter) is an activity of rational creatures.
Italy is my ancestral homeland on my mother's side. That made it a special joy to be there, discussing issues of the deepest human meaning. (The food was pretty amazing, too!)