The imaginative conservative:Mercy and the Liberal Arts

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Mercy and the Liberal Arts

Inasmuch as mercy is a human virtue, and the liberal arts are human education, the virtue of mercy is precisely the sort of thing one will explore in a good liberal arts curriculum…

MercyI would like to begin by drawing attention to the title of our symposium, “Mercy and the Liberal Arts.” It’s an intuitive sort of title. This is the Year of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis, a year in which we are to “gaze even more attentively on mercy.” And we are on the campus of St. Gregory’s University, a Catholic liberal arts university. The combination thus naturally suggests itself: mercy and the liberal arts. One naturally presumes that the conjunction is justified.

However, philosophy begins with wonder, with a sort of “not knowing.” If we want to be properly philosophical, then we should pause to ask: do mercy and the liberal arts actually have anything to do with one another? Is there any significant relationship between them? The title simply begs the question (as titles tend to do). We need to pause and ponder if we should agree with it.

To make the question manageable, we should make another important philosophical move here right at the start: we should define our terms. “Mercy” is actually a complex phenomenon with many different aspects. There is mercy as an attribute of God, one that characterizes the entirety of his relationship with human beings. There is mercy in the sacramental sense of receiving God’s forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. There are the corporal and spiritual works of mercy recommended by the Church. But all of those senses of mercy would be best explained by my more theologically-minded colleagues. I would like to focus my remarks on a different sense of mercy, one that is more properly the province of philosophy. I will focus on mercy as a moral virtue: that is, mercy as a good habit of pitying the wretchedness of others and helping them whenever possible.

We should notice two basic aspects of virtue as I have just defined it: first, having a moral virtue will involve feeling a certain way with regularity. In the case of the virtue of mercy, one must have the sort of heart that is moved with sympathy for the unhappiness of others. Having such a heart is an excellence, an achievement: not everyone is wired in that way. Some of us have, to use the biblical terminology, “stony hearts.”

Yet having the right sort of feelings is not all that is important for the possession of a moral virtue: One must also act on those feelings. Action is the second basic aspect of the virtue. One cannot claim to have the virtue of mercy unless one actually does merciful things, like those spiritual and corporal works of mercy I mentioned just a moment ago. Mercy is the human excellence of actually trying to alleviate the wretchedness of another person. So-called “hashtag activism” does not suffice to make one virtuous.

In fact, if we attend to the matter carefully, another necessary aspect of moral virtue can be recognized. Inasmuch as a virtue involves actions, it will also need to involve right reason—either now, or in the past when the actions were being carried out that formed the good habit. In humans, actions are typically influenced by emotions. Yet actions are ultimately subject to the veto power of the rational appetite, the will. Since it is reason that proposes goods to the will, right moral reasoning will necessarily be one of the ingredients of any moral virtue. A true habit of mercy will thus involve feeling the right way, acting the right way, and thinking the right way.

Finally, having a virtue will mean being able to act in some good way with consistency. The need for consistency may become apparent if we recall that virtue means “excellence” or “strength.” While it is good to perform some fitting action every now and again, there is a greater human strength evident in being able to do so consistently. In human beings, such consistency of action is made possible by habituation. One of the primary effects of the formation of a habit is that it enables one to more easily perform the very the sort of actions that build the habit in the first place. As Aristotle says with regard to the virtue of temperance: “By abstaining from pleasures we become temperate, and it is when we have become so that we are most able to abstain from them.” It is habit that makes actions easy enough that we can do them with consistency. It will thus be the presence of the habit of mercy—a habit of right feeling, right thinking, and right action—that will allow someone to truly become merciful, “full” of mercy.

Since I have specified what I mean by “mercy,” I should also briefly state what I mean by the liberal arts. I refer to the “liberal arts” in the sense of those subjects of study that are not aimed at achieving a specific professional competency or technical skill. Instead, the liberal arts are those subjects of study that address themselves to more wide-ranging human capabilities. The liberal arts, thus understood, would include subjects such as theology, philosophy, literature, mathematics, art, and so on—but not other valuable subjects such as nursing, accounting, etc. Those latter disciplines give us professional education; the liberal arts give us human education.

Now, with these definitions of mercy and the liberal arts in place, we are in a position to begin answering the question of whether the conjunction of mercy and the liberal arts makes good sense. Inasmuch as mercy is a human virtue, and the liberal arts are human education, the virtue of mercy is precisely the sort of thing one will explore in a good liberal arts curriculum. Mercy and the liberal arts do indeed belong together.

For example, one might discuss the essential character of the virtue of mercy in a philosophy or theology class. A class on the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas might consider his account of mercy in the Summa Theologiae, or a class on the thought of Plato might consider why he suggests that philosophers should have mercy on their poor fellow citizens actually engage in the dark, “Cave-like” reality that is political life.

Examples of merciful people could also be encountered in a history class. One might consider the great mercy Alexander the Great demonstrated toward the mother of the Persian king Darius, or the horrific lack of mercy that same Alexander had earlier shown toward the city of Thebes when it revolted against him. Mercy could likewise be encountered as a theme in great literature. For example, one might note the repeated emphasis upon hospitality in Homer’s Odyssey. Hospitality is a subspecies of mercy. The stranger or the visitor is in a position of weakness and neediness in comparison to the person in his own home, feasting and well-protected.

One may also learn a great deal about mercy through its depiction in art. Think of the many depictions of St. Martin of Tours, while still a Roman soldier, cutting his officer’s cloak in half to clothe a naked beggar. For some people, that is an image that suggests to us that being merciful does not mean engaging in our own self-destruction: after all, St. Martin only gives the beggar half his cloak. It is also possible to take different lesson about mercy from such sacred images of Martin: acting mercifully could possibly make us look ridiculous in the eyes of the world. One might imagine St. Martin right after the famous scene, trying to ride around on his horse and look dignified with his officer’s cloak cut in half at an ugly angle, like a boy with a bad haircut. But a truth about mercy is disclosed by such considerations: mercy is primarily about the good of the other, not our own good. It is an other-directed virtue.

More example could readily be supplied, but the point should be clear by now: the liberal arts are those subjects in which one can encounter important human realities such as mercy in many different ways, from many different angles. Professional education is important and necessary. But it is primarily through the liberal arts, not professional education, that one learns about virtues like mercy.

Moreover, the relationship between mercy and the arts need not be unidirectional. The practice of mercy itself could open up new vistas of understanding within the liberal arts. Experience often works that way: it can unlock certain truths for us. An easy way to see this is to pick up and reread one of the great books of Western literature that one has not read for a long time, perhaps a text one has not read since late in high school or early in college. In many cases, the book will seem far richer, far more interesting than it was before. Yet the book is the same; it is the reader who has changed. One has seen more of life, and through this experience one has gained new intellectual “traction” on the text.

The same thing could happen with a virtue such as mercy: experience with mercy could help someone to recognize its key aspects when it is encountered in the various disciplines of the liberal arts. Again, such new intellectual sensitivity will be especially likely to occur when one has not just acted with mercy every now and then, but when one has acted with mercy enough times or with enough intensity to actually form a virtue of mercy, a good habit. At that point, a mode of thought can open up which St. Thomas Aquinas calls “connatural knowledge.” It is an innate sort of knowledge, a knowing of something from the inside, as it were. Connatural knowledge is like being “on the wavelength” of a particular truth. It allows one judge rightly without a lengthy process of discursive reasoning. Such connatural knowledge may sound like some sort of amazing, mystical knowledge, but the explanation is more simple and natural: moral virtue does not just involve right feeling and action, but also right moral reason. Having a virtue thus means that one’s mind is already adequated to reality in a particular respect.

Thus far all of these reflections have been good news: I have been arguing that mercy and the liberal arts can disclose and mutually enrich one another. However, an important problem remains. I have chosen to focus upon mercy as a moral virtue, yet even as I have defined it, moral virtue is not just an intellectual phenomenon. It also involves feeling rightly and acting rightly, habitually. To some degree, a good teacher might indeed be able to engage the feelings of students through a fitting presentation of a truth, so perhaps achieving the necessary feelings of sympathy involved in mercy might not be a problem. But merciful action cannot be so easily prompted by a teacher, because actions are under the control of the individual human will of each student.

The will’s governance over action means that moral virtue cannot be taught—at least not fully. A professor might offer the greatest moral philosophy class in human history. He could devote an entire unit to mercy. He could make the students write a research paper on mercy. He could offer clear explanations of mercy, compelling examples, and sound arguments. In a certain sense, none of it will matter: the student himself must go out and act mercifully in order to actually start forming the moral virtue.

Of course, such action on the part of the student is certainly a logical possibility. But there are some practical impediments. A teacher is going to have trouble appealing to a student whose moral reasoning skills have been blunted and corrupted by ignoring the voice of conscience. Still other students of the teacher will already have learned vindictiveness instead of mercy from their surrounding culture (think: “Twitter rage mobs”). In other words, the effectiveness of the teaching will not simply depend upon the teacher; it will also depend upon the quality of the student. Everything that is received is received according to the mode of the receiver.

The news gets worse if we take a step past the boundaries of philosophy and into theology: even those students who still have good moral reasoning abilities will bear the wounds of Original Sin. Original Sin affects both the mind and the will. So even if the students intellectually recognize that they should act mercifully—a difficult task due to the darkening of the intellect—the weakness and woundedness of the human will may be a formidable impediment to actually doing so. The wounded human will imparts a type of inertia towards evil against which the students will need to actively strive.

So, to sum up: mercy and the liberal arts absolutely can contribute to one another. One can lead to the other and illuminate the other. But this interplay between mercy and the liberal arts by no means happens automatically. Indeed, in sick and dying cultures, one can begin to lose hope that it will happen at all. It might seem, then, that the best we can hope for is that the liberal arts will teach us about mercy; actually helping us to become merciful might seem to be beyond their reach.

Nevertheless, I would like to conclude on a more hopeful note. The problems mentioned concerning action and the human will can be mitigated in at least two ways. First, humans are social animals, and this aspect of humanity can be a help to us on the natural level. The formation of smaller communities of people who support each other in the quest for virtue can assist us in overcoming our laziness: as Aristotle says, with others “we are more able to think and act” and “a certain training in virtue” can result from the friendship between good people. We can also find a second and far more powerful source of help if we are willing to step beyond what is merely natural. Catholic Christians believe that the sacraments of the Church, the ordinary way God dispenses his grace, can begin to heal the wounds to the human will. It seems, then, that in some sense this talk has ended where it began. The best hope for a fruitful interaction between mercy and the liberal arts will be at place like a robustly Catholic liberal arts school: a community dedicated to the cultivation of virtue and supported by the grace of the sacraments.

A condensed version of these remarks was delivered at a symposium on “Mercy and the Liberal Arts” held at St. Gregory’s University in Shawnee, Oklahoma, on September 14, 2016.

The Imaginative Conservative offers to our families, our communities, and the Republic, a conservatism of hope, grace, charity, gratitude and prayer. We do this in accord with Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” – W. Winston Elliott III


The conservative is concerned, first of all, with the regeneration of the spirit and character—with the perennial problem of the inner order of the soul, the restoration of the ethical understanding, and the religious sanction upon which any life worth living is founded. This is conservatism at its highest. – Russell Kirk

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