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Stephen N. Williams

Public Intellectual

A conversation with Tom Morris

There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers," Thoreau wrote in Walden. The complaint is an old one, as old as philosophy itself, which suggests that an impulse to reform philosophy, to make it somehow more "real," is a perennial aspect of the philosophical enterprise—and thus that the claims of reformers need to be taken with a few grains of historical salt. At other times, too, the impulse may not be so much to reform philosophy as to "take it to the people," with the emphasis on that constructive project.

In our time these impulses assume many forms: inside the academy, for example, in the work of Pierre Hadot, whose book Philosophy as a Way of Life has had a powerful influence; outside, in the work of figures such as Christopher Phillips, author of Socrates Café and founder of the Society for Philosophical Inquiry (www.philosopher.org), a roving ambassador who travels throughout the United States promoting philosophical discussion in bookstores and prisons, schools and senior centers. There are also magazines such as Philosophy Now and The Philosophers' Magazine, intended to be accessible to readers with no professional stake in the discipline but with a lively interest in the subject.

Here we offer three such alternative conceptions of philosophy: in Stephen Williams' interview with the philosopher Tom Morris, who forsook the seminar room to address audiences at Merrill Lynch, General Motors, IBM, and other corporate venues; in Paige Hochschild's review of Hadot's book, What Is Ancient Philosophy?; and in Douglas Groothuis' account of Jesus as philosopher. All three shed light on the relationship between philosophy and Christian conviction.

Thomas Victor (Tom) Morris made an exceptional reputation for himself among Christian philosophers as a thinker, lecturer, and writer. He taught philosophy and philosophy of religion in one of the top departments anywhere, the University of Notre Dame, and won several teaching awards and acknowledgements. He was judged Indiana Professor of the year in 1990 and received, along with Michael Jordan, the Distinguished Young Alumnus Award of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. But in 1995, he quit the academic realm and took to traveling within and outside the United States in the role of public philosopher and adviser, lecturing to top businesses and corporations on … well, he shall tell us. His new role has earned him a public reputation, not least through television appearances, and he is director of the Morris Institute for Human Values. His latest book is The Art of Achievement: Mastering the 7 Cs of Success in Business and Life. Stephen Williams, a close friend of Morris in graduate school at Yale in the late Seventies, caught up with him last fall.

Tom, in 1980, you and I parted company. I disappeared to the remoteness of west Wales; you took up a prestigious position in Notre Dame and distinguished yourself remarkably. Then, in the '90s, rumors began to circulate of your lecturing at the request of Merrill Lynch, General Motors, IBM, and the like—and even doing Winnie-the-Pooh commercials for Disney Home Videos. The obvious question is: how the mighty have fallen?

Ha! Still the theologian I know and love. We can never predict where ideas may take us. I think the mighty have fallen because they didn't have the right ideas about their work. Wait—you were talking about the Merrill Lynch people, weren't you? If you meant me, we'll have a jolly good time in this interview after all! I was having the time of my life at Notre Dame, writing up a storm in analytic philosophy of religion, teaching an eighth of the student body in some years with the aid of a small army of teaching assistants, and helping to build the Center for Philosophy of Religion there. I loved every minute of it.

But then people in the community started to phone me, asking whether I would consider coming to speak to their business or civic groups on philosophy. That took me by surprise. I thought it might be a treat to speak on issues of ancient wisdom outside a traditional academic context. So I did. And that set off an avalanche of invitations. In some years, I've had as many as 250 requests to do talks. And then Disney came knocking at my door to be the national spokesman for that most philosophical bear, Winnie-the-Pooh. How could I resist? I made two network television commercials for the little bear, they showed nationwide hundreds of times in prime-time programming, and as a result, the speaking invitations geared up another notch. I have to admit, I never saw any of this coming!

Yes: you are the "mighty" in this case! Now from your answer, it sounds as though you switched to what you are doing because it sounded like an interesting break, not because it is more valuable. Is that so?

At first, I was launching out into public philosophizing just because it seemed to me like a way of doing a little good in the community. I thought I might be able to build some small bridges between academia and the broader culture around me. I assumed it would be a part-time occupation, and that it might just go on for a few months. I had no idea of the depth of need for real philosophy in the broader world. But I soon found out. There are so many counterfeits of wisdom out there in our culture, and people are desperate for the real thing. Once I saw how deeply people seemed to be affected by our times together in public talks, and when I began to see long term that the impact was lasting, I realized that serving a broader public might be a very valuable thing to do.

In my estimation, our last real public philosopher in this country was Ralph Waldo Emerson, 150 years ago. We've kept the philosophers locked up on college campuses too long. I realized someone needed to hit the streets again like Socrates, or at least the corporate suites—wherever people would gather and listen and engage with ideas of importance. To my knowledge, no one else at the time was doing it. So I volunteered. And here we are years later, with an enterprise whose end is nowhere in sight. I've learned more from this public service each year than in my best years of graduate school or academic scholarship. Because of that, I'd like to encourage other philosophers to consider getting involved in a broader form of service as well.

You speak movingly about the need for wisdom in the public place. But you say that the initial approach came from business and civic-group leaders. Whatever you have come to think that they need, what kind of wisdom exactly were they looking for? Were they looking for more than professional success?

The first invitation I had was to speak to a group of young business people in South Bend, Indiana, who had been picked by the executives of their companies as likely leaders of the future. They were doing monthly meetings together under the sponsorship of the Chamber of Commerce around the theme of decision making and community stewardship. They asked me to come speak on "The Ethics of Decision Making." The woman who invited me said, "Tom, when I was eighteen and in college, we used to sit up late at night and talk about important things: God, death, good, evil, meaning, love. Now when we get together with friends, all we ever talk about is what the kids are doing, what's on sale at the mall, and who Notre Dame is playing in football this week. Could you come and speak to our group and maybe help us to start talking about the big issues again?" How could I refuse?

Since then, companies have asked me to speak on what the great thinkers had to say about success, partnership, excellence, change, and many other things. They are interested in deepening their perspectives and regaining some form of balance in their lives. Not everyone, of course, but those who invite me in.

Speaking about success, partnership, and so on is not the same as speaking about what's on at the mall. But is it not different from speaking about God, death, good, and evil—things you spoke of over the years in Notre Dame?

Most of the time, I'm on middle ground. In small groups we do occasionally tackle the Big Questions of philosophy. But I'm not usually addressing cosmic issues with my audiences these days. Generally, I'm trying to help rescue them from the superficiality with which we too often live our lives. I'm helping them dig a little deeper. In my public sessions, we don't all turn into metaphysical spelunkers, exploring the most arcane caverns of truth out there, but we try to dig down a lot farther into the experiences and aspirations of our lives than my audience members are accustomed to exploring. I try to help people see the difference between real values and modern counterfeits. I encourage them to redefine success, and work for things of enduring good. So yes, indeed, the terrain is very different from where I worked as an academic philosopher. No convention center discourses on the modalities of divine property exemplification. Well, not yet, at least. But who knows where this all will lead?

How do you define success? In 1992, a certain Thomas V. Morris wrote a book called Making Sense of It All: Pascal and the Meaning of Life. Arthur Holmes wrote of it: "This book deserves the kind of popularity C.S. Lewis's apologetic writings have earned." You argue that, in the end, only God, or Christ, makes sense of it all. Two years later, a certain Tom Morris wrote a book called True Success: A New Philosophy of Excellence. Success and excellence, in that volume, have no necessary reference to God. So what do you persuade people to call "successful," to call "excellent"?

I'm still writing and speaking as a committed Christian philosopher, but these days I'm engaged in what most theologians would call "pre-evangelism." Operating under the adage that all truth is God's truth and working with very mixed audiences of agnostics, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and people of every other orientation, I do what I can to help them reposition themselves to see as much of what I consider the truth as they can, without causing them to put up defenses too quickly.

I believe that true success in life can be defined very simply in terms of discovering our talents, developing those talents, and deploying them into the world for the good of other people as well as ourselves. No explicit theology in that statement, and you're right that there is no obvious theology in a book like True Success either. But its seven principles for success in any endeavor could practically be read out of the book of Proverbs in the Bible alone. I wouldn't have to go to Aristotle, Lao Tsu, Confucius, Marcus Aurelius, Emerson, William James, and many others for the insights that book is built around. But it helps to win audiences over to show them the universality of the insights, and how many great thinkers have converged in their claims in at least this area.

Since editing God and the Philosophers for Oxford, and publishing my own spiritual autobiography there, I've been more indirect in my communications. In Philosophy for Dummies, I did argue explicitly for theism (on Amazon.com you can see some of the controversy that has generated), and in my latest book, The Art of Achievement, I've gone the farthest yet in my books geared to a broader public to adumbrate the importance and role of spirituality in my own life. But just as the Lord is subtle, I've learned to be a bit more so as well. In some things, at least.

Over the years of your speaking to the wider audiences, are there one or two things that have struck you particularly about what people need? For example, both in True Success and The Art of Achievement, you write about the seven Cs of success. Has your perspective on any of these shifted significantly in the eight years between their publication, on the basis of your experience?

When I first started speaking, I realized right away that people needed a deeper form of motivation in their lives and work. We all need a sense of nobility in our lives, a sense that we are doing something important, a feeling that we are making a difference. I could tell that people needed help with focus and depth. In fact, in the book If Aristotle Ran General Motors, I claimed that spirituality is really about depth and connectedness, and then tried to spell out how that applies in the workplace, how it is tied up with ultimate motivation for what we're doing.

In recent years, I've been seeing a real need for a new understanding of ethics and issues of character. For far too long in America, people seem to have thought that ethics is basically about staying out of trouble. And too often ethics is conflated with issues of legality. I've been trying to recover the more ancient view that ethics is all about creating strength in people, in relationships and in organizations. A misunderstanding of ethics and of the importance of character for sustainable success in our enterprises has had spectacularly bad consequences in the business world of late. I'm trying to help people see their way beyond those troubles and ground themselves in a more stable view of the role of ethics in life.

You've mentioned your book on Aristotle and General Motors. Do you find Aristotle supreme among the ancients in terms of his resources for the needs you are addressing? I know that you are researching the Stoics: how do they compare?

I tried to make it clear to readers in the introduction to If Aristotle Ran General Motors that it wasn't really a book about either Aristotle or that famous company. I was using both their names as emblematic. I also pointed out that often when I was trying to solve a problem or gain a new perspective on business in our day, it was one of Aristotle's insights that gave me what I needed. But I've never been a one-philosopher philosopher. I look for wisdom wherever I can find it. And you're right, I'm hot on the trail of the Stoics right now, especially Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. They had tremendously useful insights on how to deal with disappointment, how to keep your head when all around you are losing theirs, and basically how to build those inner resources for outer success in the world. I already have a full draft manuscript on their wisdom, a project I'm very excited about. In a time focused on outer reality, or all too often outer appearances, the Stoics help us reorient ourselves to see what's really important in any endeavor.

Christian theologians and philosophers in the conservative Protestant and Catholic tradition have often been wary of these ancients. Luther had some harsh things to say about what Aristotle does to your theology; Pascal (as you know) contended against Neo-Stoic attraction to the moral self-sufficiency of Epictetus. Have Christian philosophers, in your judgment, made too little of the practical wisdom of, e.g., the Stoics, and, if so, is that the function of concentrating too much on the agenda of the academy?

I've learned how to appreciate the insights a philosopher has to offer us while forgiving his mistakes. Traditionally, people seemed to be too keen on either buying into a philosopher completely or tossing out the baby with the bathwater. I just naturally came to philosophy with more of a pick-and-choose approach. Pascal has great insights and then sometimes falls into extreme positions. I'm glad he isn't my next-door neighbor, but he's given me such great perspectives from across the centuries that it's not clear I've ever learned more from anyone else. We all have our insights and our errors. Plenty of people in the academy have been keen to help me see at least part of this picture in my own case. And I suppose that's your point, well taken, that in academic pursuits we are focused on detecting error, whereas in the rest of life, we are most concerned about gaining insight. Having lived now both as an academic and as a public thinker, I like to believe I've attained a balance. I think Christians can find supportive insights in the most amazing places if we'll just look with open minds and hearts.

Your former colleague, Alvin Plantinga, wrote a piece of "Advice to Christian Philosophers." What advice would you give them, particularly younger ones, perhaps?

We are here to be lights in the world, not just in seminar rooms. The graduate education and rigorous professional training that prepares us so well for precision and care with ideas unfortunately doesn't prepare us too well to be of much service to the people beyond our classrooms. We can overcome the narrowness of our professional habits of thought if we'll just remind ourselves of what got us interested in philosophy in the first place. It likely wasn't some esoteric point in metaphysics, logic, or the philosophy of language. It was more likely some urge to get our bearings better in this world, understand things more clearly, and prepare ourselves to help others think through their lives as well. If we can pull ourselves back into this set of concerns, we can perhaps see a way again for doing more good in the world than we ever come to expect as professionals. I don't mean for a second that we have to abandon our rigorous researches into the topics that do properly concern first-rank academic philosophers, but that as Christians, we should keep open to the possibility that this is not where our service to the world both begins and ends.

My main advice to young Christian philosophers is that they should make as much time as possible to read things outside their areas of expertise, and even outside philosophy and theology. Read novels and history. Go to see films. Listen to music. Turn on the television now and then, and stay in touch with the culture around you. Make friends with nonphilosophers. Laugh as much as you can. And always keep your eyes wide open for opportunities to use your amazing talents for the good of others as well as yourself. That's the way to serve God.

A final, more personal question, if I may. Do you ever feel any kind of tension between meditating on the cross and the crucified one, and promoting self-esteem and excellence in business? A tension between living in a suffering world and laughing as much as we can?

It's not so much self-esteem I'm out to promote, as a proper, authentic self-actualization. I'm trying to help people become the best they're capable of being while they're here. And I believe that is thoroughly continuous both with our understanding of creation and the meaning of the crucifixion, along with its aftermath. Mother Teresa once said that we're called by God to be faithful, not to be successful. But I think she was underrating success, or perhaps allowing that concept to be hijacked by the larger secular culture. It's not wrong for missionaries, ministers, evangelists or theologians to seek to be successful in what they are doing. It's all a matter of understanding what success is. Our goals should be prayerfully set, and should be aimed at the glory and kingdom of God, not at our own eminence and glory. In fact, I've come to grasp that the one virtue the Greeks really didn't understand, the virtue of humility and self-sacrifice, the quality portrayed in the extreme by the cross, is absolutely crucial for living out the right sort of success in this world.

And as to the role of laughter in all this: I think Jesus cracked quite a few jokes in his time among us. And we know that he wept. We're here to experience the whole range of human emotions, because they're all appropriate at one time or another. I don't have to go around urging Christian philosophers to be serious. But I can serve them by reminding them, every now and then, to have a little fun as well. Philosophy is serious business, but serious isn't the same thing as somber. Thanks for asking.

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