Politics, Judgment & Last ThingsPolitics, Judgment & Last Things

Politics, Judgment & Last Things

What Prof. John von Heyking would say if these were his last words

John von Heyking
13 minute read
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I wish to thank the Student Union for inviting me to deliver the Last Lecture. What a wonderful event, and one that reminds us of the fundamental nature of the university and liberal education. You, the students, ask the professors to teach you what is most important, not what is fashionable or trendy or our esoteric specialized knowledge.

This is a crucial exercise for your generation, the so-called millennials. You enjoy the fruits of being able to enjoy a greater amount of personal and moral freedom than perhaps any generation before you. You enjoy the fruits of pluralism: The Internet and social media provide you with more sources of information and perspectives than anyone in history has enjoyed. If any generation can be called cosmopolitan, it might be yours, having seemingly transcended all restrictions of nationality, ethnicity, community, family, opinion and even gender. Your access to unlimited knowledge presents you with the image that all laws, all customs, all moral codes are merely arbitrary, mere accidents of history and of the powers that be. You seem to have fulfilled the ancient Gnostic dream of escaping the prisons of your bodies for the ethereal freedom of the gods. Their omniscience and omnipotence seem to come to you with the click of a mouse or a text message.

And yet this endless stream of images and texts may actually hinder your opportunities to exercise understanding and judgment over their meaning, and the meaning of things that are and will become crucial for your well-being. The cost of all that pluralism is the reduction of difference to indifference and interchangeability. Your moral choices may appear to you as arbitrary and worthless as a whimsical taste. This may make you indecisive because you're not sure whether your opinions are worth anything. Why bother even thinking when your opinion is simply arbitrary anyway? Life's easier to live in your parents' basement and watching the Daily Show to receive your prefabricated opinions, packaged in a container of ironic smugness that masks your moral despair.

Your challenge is in figuring out what to do with this multiplicity of choices. Is it to remain standing in indecision, afraid to make any moral choices because you dread that making any choice might commit you to a course of action whose justification may be punctured at a moment's notice by someone else who has made an equally indifferent and interchangeable choice? Why make a choice when all [choices] are meaningless? How are we to think, act and judge in this bewildering age of technological mediation?

Over 170 years ago, Søren Kierkegaard wrote a book called Either/Or that analyzes your very millennial situation. His character, an aesthete, also faces a pluralistic world of moral choice — with each choice seemingly arbitrary. But instead of living in his parents' basement and watching the Daily Show, Kierkegaard's aesthete revels in it and the only concrete choice he makes is to live the life of extreme passion, of seducing women. You see, all that choice made him bored, so he decided the only thing worth doing was to seduce women, over and over again. He did not love any of them, but rather he was in love with the idea of being in love, which is an abstraction. Indeed his very self became an abstraction because he deluded himself that he could float freely above life without ever dropping down to make any kind of moral choice, for himself or to another. He was incapable of love and friendship, and thus incapable of being fully human.

Kierkegaard's analysis of this pathology, despite it being over 170 years old, is very contemporary to us. Despite advances in technology and other flashy gadgets that falsely promise our liberation from our mortal condition, there's not a lot new under the sun. Kierkegaard also shows a way to get beyond this perspective of the aesthete, by showing us how our selves only exist truly when we are in the flesh and bone world of life and making moral choices, with friends and in community.

And this seems to be what you have done tonight by organizing the Last Lecture. Like the youth of Athens who insisted on keeping company with Socrates because their own parents had lost moral authority in the wake of the war against Sparta, or the youths of Germany in the 1950s and 1960s who looked to philosophers such as Eric Voegelin because their own parents had been implicated in the Nazi regime, the Student Union's Last Lecture reminds us of the huge moral responsibility we as teachers have to teach you things that truly count. Like them, you seem to have rejected the authority of technologically mediated pluralism, which seems to treat all choices as arbitrary. You sit in judgment of what we teachers offer because, at this time in your young lives, you face the daunting prospect of choosing your lot in life, your forever.

The Last Lecture also reminds us of the fundamental truth that what we professors offer as our Last Lecture must be what we offer everyday. The Last Lecture is our chance to present the book that we professors have been writing our entire life, but it is a book that must be open each time we profess truth to our students, not just at tonight's Last Lecture but during every lecture, every day. It is where we give what the ancient Greeks called logon didonai, a giving of accounts. In delivering the Last Lecture, I deliver myself up for judgment.

I am privileged to have spent my life as a professor in the company of students, reading great books that, in one way or another, wrestle with the question of being offered up for judgment. This question seems intimately bound up with the great questions of ethics and politics, with justice, with founding a good political society, and with friendship.

Plato's Republic is an epic book in which Socrates spends all night in the company of some youths, discussing the nature of justice. It concludes with a myth concerning what happens to just and unjust souls in eternity. I agree with those who think that this myth is not Plato's cop-out. After having spent hundreds of pages debating how we can understand and defend justice on the basis of reason, I do not think he suddenly gives up and tells his readers that they must be just because otherwise the gods will punish them.

That's not the message of his myth of judgment. Read with some attention, we in fact learn that the choice of who we are is our responsibility at every moment of every day, and that the reward or punishment is to be found in the choice itself.

The message seems to be that eternal life is now and that we had better be careful and wise in what we pray for, because it is rather dangerous for the ignorant to pray.

This seems to be the message of many other great books I have had the privilege of reading with my students, including Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Augustine's City of God, Dante's Divine Comedy (all three parts) and Immanuel Kant's Metaphysics of Morals. Offering oneself up for judgment is a more muted theme in the modern political books we have read together, including Machiavelli's Prince, Locke's Second Treatise of Government or de Tocqueville's Democracy in America. But even those authors insist on inquiring into the political and legal conditions in which responsible use of power may be wielded. Machiavelli famously tells the prince to love his country more than his own soul, but here, too, he reminds him that it is easier to ask forgiveness for a "well used" cruelty "done at a stroke" than for seemingly ethical decisions that simply lengthen and draw out the crisis you face.

All these great texts operate under the kind of insight Søren Kierkegaard offers when he states in Works of Love: "Alas, many think that judgment is something reserved for the far side of the grave, and so it is also, but they forget that judgment is much closer than that, that it is taking place at all times, because at every moment you live, existence is judging you, since to live is to judge oneself, to become disclosed."

To stand under judgment is to stand precariously on that knife-edge paradox that Immanuel Kant noticed whereby we have freedom to do right, but also that our freedom consists only in doing right. Freedom consists in living for another in love and friendship. Conversely, the refusal to stand under judgment, or to dodge the gaze of judgment, is the same as the refusal to love and to practise friendship. We stand face to face in loving one another.

Now we find ourselves in an astonishing spot. I'll mark it with the oath Socrates most liked saying: "by the dog!" He made this oath to the Egyptian god Anubis, who is Hermes for the Greeks, whenever he and his friends had, in their descent into the depths, confronted something of great existential importance.

You find me now recollecting and telling wondrous stories about the great books I have read with my students, and many of those students have also become my friends. You have enabled me to live the kind of blessed life that Socrates describes, according to this report made by his student, Xenophon:

"Just as others are pleased by a good horse or dog or bird, I myself am pleased to an even higher degree by good friends...and the treasures of the wise men of old which they left behind by writing them in books, I unfold and go through them together with my friends, and if we see something good, we pick it out and regard it as a great gain if we thus become useful to one another."
Xenophon, Memorabilia, I, vi,14

Xenophon's quaint-sounding recollection illuminates a profound truth. The Last Lecture invites us to consider: How have I spent my time? Have I spent my life doing something worthwhile?

Perhaps the most profound critique of tyranny — the society in which power and riches are the dominant goal — is the argument, made by the ancient Greek philosophers, that the tyrant lacks friends. So monstrous is he that all human beings are mere fodder for his voracious appetites and addictions.

I am reminded of this lesson whenever I think of the most important things I need to teach my students. I sincerely believe that we university professors have failed you deeply if we have not created opportunities for you to think about the meaning of friendship, to make lifelong friends in university, to practise and to cultivate those friendships in a setting where we, like Socrates and his friends, read books and find fine and useful lessons.

More than that, we have failed if we have not provided you with the moral space of leisurely freedom that enables you to practise those kinds of friendships that are quite distinct from the relationships that will predominate your working lives after university, namely, business associates and colleagues. We have failed you if we have not given you the taste of delight for learning with your fellow explorers and voyagers, your friends. Not those who cravenly want from you some benefit, favour or advantage, and who after they obtain it discard any interest in you; but those who simply wish to share with you the experience of learning together, that most humane of activities.

Musicians know this experience of delighting in another while delighting in the song they play; they often call it being "in the groove." Aristotle calls it friends enjoying sunaisthesis, or common perception of the good. We behold each other while beholding something fine and noble together, and my perception of the good is inseparable from my beholding the good with you. You know this experience from beholding the beauty of the coulees as you walk with your friends between classes. I hope you have also experienced it while pondering the nature of justice, of beauty or of love with your friends.

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I have had the privilege of teaching political science and I believe, against the cynics, that there is something about politics, and about power even, that points us towards these higher realities of love and friendship. I mentioned a moment ago that even Machiavelli, that spokesman for cynical realism, lets us glimpse the prince's desire to stand under the light of judgment. Not every politician is blind to the moral responsibilities of power, and this should not be surprising because power has a way of pointing us to our responsibilities.

For instance, Aristotle distinguishes the practical wisdom we as citizens have to make moral choices as they are appropriate for our private lives as citizens, students, workers and as members of our households. This wisdom differs from the political wisdom that statesmen must exercise because they are responsible not just for their individual lives and well-being but for everyone in their society. A society is morally and spiritually impoverished if it does not provide citizens the opportunity to partake in that higher political wisdom in some form. Indeed, we owe our word idiot to the Greeks, who coined it to describe the individual who took no share in the "public happiness" of a society. Today we euphemistically call such "idiots" users of social media.

The responsibilities that come with political wisdom mean that statesmen must frequently make difficult choices. The good of society might weigh more heavily on some than others. We can regret such harms but, as Aristotle and Winston Churchill said, we are judged not by our intentions and regrets but by our actions.

Just before leaving the White House in 1953, U.S. President Harry Truman hosted a dinner for Churchill. A number of Truman's staff and advisors were also there, including Robert Lovett, Dean Acheson, Averell Harriman and General Omar Bradley — all heroes of the Second World War and architects of the world order afterward. At one point Churchill asked Truman, "I hope you have your answer for that hour when you and I stand before Saint Peter and he says ‘I understand you two are responsible for putting off those atomic bombs. What have you got to say for yourselves?'" An awkward moment, to be sure. I am sure at least one person at the table probably choked on his steak when Churchill uttered that statement.

After some encouragement, Churchill agreed to put himself alone under trial, and that Saint Peter would delegate judgment to a trial by a jury of their peers. Each guest then assumed the role of a member of the jury, pretending to be any great leader he wished: Bradley was Alexander the Great, others chose Julius Caesar, George Washington and Aristotle, among others. What is notable is that, with the exception of the philosopher Aristotle, this jury was composed of statesmen and military leaders. The jury had no Christian saints, after Saint Peter had "delegated" judgment to the jury. In the end, Churchill decided only Truman, as presiding "judge" over Churchill, could make the call.

Some will find their delegation of judgment away from Saint Peter as a means of dodging ultimate judgment, which it may well be. However, it is also important to note that such dodging also reveals the possibly tragic demands we place upon our leaders. Only Truman and Churchill could judge one another because only they had held the mantle of such awesome political responsibility. Indeed, how many of us would have decided differently from Truman had we been in his shoes?

The last example I wish to leave you with is that of Abraham Lincoln. On this date 149 years ago, the U.S. Civil War ended, with General Robert F. Lee surrendering his Confederate Army to Northern General Ulysses S. Grant. This titanic fratricidal war killed more than 600,000 Americans and maimed hundreds of thousands more. A month earlier, as Northern Armies were nearing victory over the South, Lincoln spoke these words in his Second Inaugural Address, which marked his re-election as President:

"It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.... So, still it must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether....' With malice towards none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

This is one of the most remarkable speeches ever delivered by a statesman at war. Where most would exalt over their soon-to-be fallen foe, and exalt in pride of one's own righteousness, Lincoln simply said "let us judge not, that we be not judged."

This is not the moral relativist's claim that we should never judge. Rather, it is the claim of the statesman, philosopher and prophet that the judge above all must be under judgment. Only then can the project begin of binding up the "nation's wounds," and caring for the widows and orphans. Lincoln explained to a friend afterward that "men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them.... It is a truth which I thought needed to be told; and as whatever of humiliation there is in it, falls most directly on myself."

At the pinnacle of power, Lincoln recognized that such "humiliation" must fall above all, and most directly, upon himself. And so it did. Not six weeks later in the Ford Theater in Washington, D.C., Lincoln was assassinated by a southerner and Shakespearean actor who compared himself to Brutus assassinating Julius Caesar, even reportedly shouting, "Sic semper tyrannis" ("Thus always to tyrants") as he fled the scene.

Just as death snatched Lincoln like a thief in the night, so too does death stalk each and every one of us. Live every moment as if you are under judgment because you are, because we are. By the dog, I depart by leaving you with the prayer that the God who judges you is the God of mercy and charity, and not Plato and Kant's God of justice, who is more exacting, more demanding and more damning. Which god this is, only the god can show you in the way you love your friends and neighbors "with malice towards none, with charity for all."

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