From Aquinas to al-Qaeda

From Aquinas to al-Qaeda

Philosophy's Hibbs writes - and writes - on good and evil, past and present

He's a medieval philosopher who does movie reviews, an Aquinas scholar who also mulls popular culture, and whose critique of nihilism in television and movies has taken on new relevance at a time when the real-life horrors of Sept. 11 and suicide bombers are scarier than anything on the screen.

"Learning moral virtue is akin to learning how to be an excellent point guard in basketball or a violinist in an orchestra."-Thomas Hibbs (Photo by Lee Pelligrini)
Prof. Thomas Hibbs (Philosophy) has been busy these days. His new book, Virtue's Splendor: Wisdom, Prudence, and the Human Good, a scholarly reflection on what it means for human beings to lead a good life, has just been released by Fordham University Press. His movie reviews and cultural essays have been appearing regularly on National Review Online [].

Recently, Hibbs offered to the Chronicle some thoughts on his new book, on how a scholar of Aquinas and Aristotle became a student of popular culture, and on whether al Qaeda terrorists are true nihilists:

"I began writing about pop culture during a sabbatical as a way of filling time after I'd finished a book on Aquinas. I enjoyed it. I like to write; film and cultural analysis offer me the opportunity to write short pieces and to finish them quickly. I also found that it afforded me a different way of connecting with my students and with educated non-academics.

"I don't want to invest the study of pop culture with excessive gravity: It is never a substitute for the more careful, more exacting, and more time-consuming scholarly work, but it can be a starting point for philosophy.

"Socrates, the first philosopher, did not talk about philosophy books but about the stories woven into the fabric of his society, the images and exemplars that inform ordinary people's vision of human life. Of course, ordinary Greeks had a much richer stock of stories and a much more detailed moral vocabulary than what we have and so I try to mix analysis of pop culture, of film and TV, with philosophical and literary texts.

"My main scholarly interests in Aristotle, Aquinas, and their accounts of the moral and intellectual virtues are related to the work I do in popular culture. Indeed, in Anglo-American philosophy there has recently been a resurgence of interest in the ethics of virtue as an alternative to the dominant modern ethical systems, Kantianism and utilitarianism.

"Virtue's Splendor is a contribution to current debates in ethics. Drawing upon Aristotle, Aquinas, and contemporary virtue ethicists, the book reasserts the centrality for philosophy and human life of the question: What constitutes the good life for human beings?

"The classical languages of moral appraisal - of noble and base, of excellence and mediocrity, of virtue and vice - presuppose there is more to the moral life than rule-following, and that there are goods that are ends in themselves, desirable for their own sake - that not everything can be treated as an instrument to maximizing profit or pleasure.

"The life of virtue is a matter of imitating examples of excellence and of developing through practice the right sort of habits. Learning moral virtue is akin to learning how to be an excellent point guard in basketball or a violinist in an orchestra.

"If we are not hopelessly corrupt, virtue appears to us not just as something desirable but as beautiful, as having a sort of splendor. Hence, the title of the book, which comes from Cicero's statement, quoted by Aquinas, that the 'splendor of virtue is most evident in justice.'

"The rediscovery of virtue, grounded in concrete examples of human excellence, is not just an important theoretical task but a pressing practical one as well. Critical engagement of pop culture is one way of awakening students to what's missing, what's excluded or rejected, in our cultural landscape and also to those instances in film and real life where complex adult models of virtue surface. All of this may point students in the direction of a quest for human excellence.

"Certainly 9/11 gave us concrete examples both of evil and heroic sacrifice for the good. In my nihilism class last fall we spent a little time discussing the terrorists and the thesis of Christopher Hitchens and others that the terrorists are nihilists. While the terrorists do seem to have a much better idea of what it is they want to destroy than of any positive plan for their own future, they are not nihilists intent on destruction of all order.

"They do not, for example, blow up mosques. In fact, their claim would be that we are nihilists, mere consumers, given to the pointless pursuit of petty pleasures, too soft to fight incursions into our society. Well, 9/11 itself and the war that followed certainly disproved bin Laden's assertion that America is but a 'paper tiger.'

"Still, catastrophe is not a good teacher. It can shock us into the realization of more fundamental truths but it can't provide the moral vocabulary or the habits needed to make sense out of what's happened or to alter our lives accordingly."

-Mark Sullivan


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