Great ideas at Walsh University

The 43rd Annual Philosophy/Theology Symposium at Walsh University will focus on the topic of “What are the Great Ideas: Why & Where Do They Really Matter?” and will feature 2018 Visiting Scholar William Cathers, Aspen Institute moderator, philosopher, educator, and protégé of Mortimer J. Adler.

Adler derived the great ideas—truth, goodness, beauty, liberty, equality, and justice—from his lifelong love of the great books, a love that Dr. John G. Trapani, Jr., Walsh University philosophy professor and founder of the Philosophy/Theology Symposium, has cultivated in students over his 44-year career at Walsh.

Trapani has hosted many well-respected key note speakers at the Philosophy/Theology Symposium over the years, but perhaps his most important role has been to unite the Walsh community, including both students and professors, for the better part of a week each year to think about important ideas within philosophy and theology from an interdisciplinary perspective.

This year, for instance, Walsh professors from various disciplines will discuss the six great ideas—truth, beauty, goodness, liberty, equality, and justice—on March 13-14. On the next day, the great ideas will be examined as they appear in the arts: literature, painting, and music. The last two days of the conference will feature Will Cathers’ key note address, lectures by Walsh students and a Socratic seminar for Walsh students led by Cathers.

Many of the talks contain an explicit Catholic message—highlighting Walsh’s Catholic identity—within the perimeters of the great ideas. For example, three lectures will take place on March 15, approaching the great ideas from the perspective of the arts and focusing on literature, painting, and music.

The literature piece, which I will have the honor of presenting, will discuss truth in Hamlet by looking at Polonius and his well-known statement: “This above all: To thine own self be true.” Akers’ talk is titled “Modern Wisdom or Foolish Advice?” He questions the modern assumption that Polonius’ advice is sound and wise. His saying appears on coffee mugs, jewelry, self-help books and blogs, and many consider it the key to happiness and success, but did Shakespeare intend that, and should we accept Polonius’ counsel?

“To thine own self be true” fits the modern idea that we are all okay as we are. Follow your own passions, desires, perversions wherever they lead you. You are an autonomous individual. Be true to yourself and, in doing so, you will not be false to anyone. Sounds nice to modern ears and egos, but is it actually foolish advice? By examining Polonius’ character and various critical assessments, from 18th century author Samuel Johnson to Louis Markos and Joseph Pearce, we must conclude that Polonius himself, with his shortcomings and deficiencies, is not a credible source and that this particular piece of advice is especially bad.

In contrast, both the classical and Christian traditions offer a corrective to Polonius’ advice. A step in the right direction is Socrates’ admonition to “know thyself.” Here, we find a sense that we must practice self-examination and that we may not be as perfect as we think we are. We must study the depths of our soul and see what is there. We must weigh and evaluate our own inclinations: What faults need to be purged and what virtues need to be encouraged?

But an even better admonition—in fact, the best wisdom—comes from Holy Scripture, which advises us to find our true self in Christ. As Christians, or little Christs, we find our true selves when we take up our cross and follow our Lord. Yes, it requires admitting that we are not whole as we are; in fact, we have to die to ourselves to become fully alive, to become what we are meant to be. Yes, it is painful.

Our journey this Lent—the self-sacrifice we perform—possibly skipping dessert or foregoing a drink or spending a few extra minutes in prayer every day—is only an introduction to what it really means to discover our true selves in the light of Christ and understand what it will cost us to strip away all of the sin and falsehood with which we encase ourselves. While “to thine own self be true” sounds easier and more satisfyingly self-focused to the modern ear, it is not truly satisfying and will not lead to fulfillment. So during this Lenten season, let us reject the facile advice—“to thine own self be true”—and instead focus on conforming our wills, desires, and passions to the One who made us. Let us be true to Jesus Christ.

Even at a university, there are too few opportunities for colleagues, students, and community members to join together to discuss fundamental philosophical and theological questions. For 43 years now, the Philosophy/Theology Symposium has provided just such a venue at Walsh University. As Trapani retires, we wish him God’s blessing and thank him for his devotion to the permanent things. And we look forward at Walsh to next year’s 44th Philosophy/Theology Symposium. We hope to carry on this important campus-wide dialogue.

MATTHEW P. AKERS serves as executive director of the James B. Renacci Center for Civic Engagement and as visiting assistant professor of English at Walsh University.

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