Skip to content
Essay

Intellectual Virtue and Personal Sovereignty

In an essay titled Elementary Studies in the book The Idea of a University, St. John Henry Newman narrates a fictional account of a weak student, identified by the generic name of Mr. Brown, who flounders on an oral entrance examination. Newman mentions that the underlying reason for his “inaccuracy of mind” was a “mental restlessness and curiosity.” The boy had read many books, books by authors such as Virgil, Cicero, and Xenophon that are considered classic works. But he read them in a disordered way, thinking “that the gratification of a love of reading is real study.” He is representative of the type who “cannot fix their gaze on one object for two seconds together; the very impulse which leads them to read at all, leads them to read on, and never to stay or hang over any one idea.” He has tidbits from what he has read floating around in his mind, but when questioned about specifics, he is unable to adequately answer. Rather than apply himself in a disciplined and orderly manner, the boy consumed books without adequate reflection, reading in a haphazard way.

Curiosity: Vice or Virtue?

It is not surprising that Newman identifies the lad’s vice as “curiosity.” Traditionally, curiosity has been considered the chief intellectual vice opposing the virtue of studiousness. The curious person’s attention dissipates to the point where he or she is not able to come to an adequate understanding of the subject at hand. The curious person is not in control of himself but rather habitually chases whatever catches his fancy, like a dog zigzagging across a field. The disciplined application required for mastery is unachievable for the person who is frequently distracted by tangential threads. The virtue of studiousness enables one to focus on the task at hand in a disciplined and orderly manner, working toward mastery, which includes not only retention of important details but an integrated understanding of the whole as well.

Arguably, the vice of curiosity is much more of a problem today than it was in Newman’s time. Modern media technologies have made it easier to indulge curiosity. People are constantly clicking a link or scrolling down a screen to see a new spectacle. Images and information on a screen have become a source of entertainment. Attention engineers build features into social media platforms designed to encourage intemperate engagement. If a young person today were to ”consume” sophisticated texts like Mr. Brown, most educators would look at him with admiration. The vice of curiosity would be the last thing on their minds. Getting a teenager to read any book is seen as a victory. An entire genre of entertaining children’s books – books that are about as far from great books as possible – has been produced in an attempt to keep children reading anything other than short blurbs in text messages or on social media. From Newman’s time to ours, the landscape has so changed that it is hard to imagine the possibility of a media-saturated teenager intemperately reading great books.

Given that indulging curiosity is such a problem, it is ironic that many people speak of curiosity not as an intellectual vice but as a virtue of sorts. It is not uncommon for curiosity to be spoken of as a good thing, as indicative of a healthy interest in reality. It is a compliment to say that someone has a healthy intellectual curiosity. I’ve filled out college recommendation forms where I’ve been asked to rate a student’s curiosity. The intention behind the question was to find out if the student was interested in learning, which would be indicated by a high curiosity score. What is going on here? How can what was once considered the chief intellectual vice, and something so obviously a problem, be spoken of as a virtue of sorts?

Acedia and the Problem of Boredom

There is more to this seeming paradox than just confusion over whether curiosity is a virtue or a vice. People today are not entirely misguided in seeing curiosity in a more positive light. The reason is that today we have a new intellectual vice that is much more serious than curiosity. Newman did not address this vice because it was so uncommon in the nineteenth century. In the Aristotelian framework, a virtue is rightly considered to be the golden mean between two extremes, between two opposing vices. If the virtue of studiousness is the mean, then it is opposed on the one hand by the vice of curiosity – of too readily giving into a desire for consuming entertaining tidbits – and on the other hand by a vice that is not typically named, which, for lack of a better term, we can call “dull boredom.” Dull boredom reflects a lack of interest in reality, a lack of desire to know. The opposing vices, curiosity and dull boredom, are not unrelated. Our problem is that we have so overindulged in the vice of curiosity that many of us are unable to take a healthy interest in knowing. We are not so much intemperate in our desire to know as we have reached a dark pit from which there is little desire to follow the dim light that is barely visible above us. The vice of dull boredom partly accounts for the passivity in young people today, and, of particular concern to educators, it deprives the student of the possibility of taking joy in learning.

Sloth and acedia are the closest the tradition gets to naming the vice we are calling dull boredom. Sloth, or laziness, is a broad term that can be applied by way of analogy to the intellectual life, as when we speak of mental laziness. In this sense, however, mental sloth is more like a tendency that a phlegmatic temperament must overcome rather than a true state of boredom. Acedia, which some authors have identified as a serious and yet underrecognized problem for our time, is perhaps closer to the dull boredom we are considering. Acedia is a sloth of spirit that finds displeasure in the possibility of knowing God and relating to him with a loving spirit of filiation. Correspondingly, dull boredom, as we are using it, could be defined as an acedia that applies not only to one’s relationship with God but to the possibility of knowing or relating constructively to reality in general.

Whatever it is called, this dull boredom or acedia of the intellect and spirit is rightly considered today as a more serious problem than its opposite, mere curiosity, just as despair is a more serious problem than presumption, even though both are opposed to the virtue of hope. In the Aristotelian framework, the vice at one extreme is typically closer to the virtue than the vice at the other extreme, as, for example, foolhardiness seems to be closer to courage than does cowardice. Faced with the horror of that despairing disinterest in reality that is characteristic of dull boredom, it is not wrong to see the vice of curiosity in a more positive light by comparison. This is why I think what has traditionally been considered the chief intellectual vice – curiosity – is now considered by many to be a virtue of sorts. And if all that is meant by the word curiosity is a healthy interest in reality, then the contemporary usage, though not in sync with the traditional meaning of the word, has some validity.

Even so, curiosity is not a virtue. Indulging an intemperate desire for new tidbits of information is precisely what leads to the dull boredom so characteristic of our times. Excessive consumption of TikTok videos leads to a dullness of spirit analogous to that of a drug addict looking for a new hit to escape the emptiness he feels when he wakes up sober. The attention engineers who design facets of social media platforms have succeeded in creating products that some people are literally unable, by their own power, to stop using. The situation calls for developing the virtue of studiousness, rather than settling for the less serious vice of curiosity.

The Virtue of Studiousness

Most people can, upon reflection, recognize that studiousness is a virtue, that there is such a thing as a well-trained and well-ordered mind. It makes sense that the mind is in some way analogous to a muscle that needs to be exercised to function well, that just as a sedentary existence leads to weak muscles so the neglect of study can lead to atrophy of the mind. Virtues are developed by practice, by repeatedly acting rightly until the action becomes easier and more pleasant. It makes sense to most people that the virtue of studiousness is no exception. Many hours of disciplined study – reading, memorizing, pondering, analyzing, relating new information to previous knowledge, striving for accuracy regarding specifics and an integrated understanding of the whole, not shying away from difficult why questions that do not have easy answers, working toward what Newman calls a “philosophic outlook” – all of this and more is required to build the true strength of mind characteristic of the studious person.

Ideally, parents and educators work together to foster the virtue of studiousness in the young. Teachers have their role to play by teaching in such a way that the spirit of study intensifies in class and by assigning the right academic work. The best teachers, by taking care of the myriad of details involved with fulfilling their role, will motivate and inspire students to engage academic material outside of class time. Parents arguably have the more important role to play as the ones who establish a home where real study is possible and natural. A student necessarily approaches the possibility of learning according to his family relationships, ideally from a position of interior strength born of being loved and valued by a family seeking to live in sync with God’s plan. Experienced educators know that one of the results of serious discord in a family, such as parents going through a separation, is that the child is distracted in class, seemingly unable to be present to the possibility of learning. When family relationships are solid, when order and peace reign at home, the key elements are in place for the possibility of hours of disciplined at-home study, which is gently promoted by the family schedule that parents establish.

But as important as disciplined study is, a more nuanced approach is needed today. In the nineteenth century, in Newman’s time, it may have been enough to develop studiousness by proper application, by disciplined study, as the means to counter the vice of curiosity. But the situation has changed. If our problem is as I have outlined – that we have so indulged curiosity as to reach a state of dull boredom and, with only a tenuous grasp of the virtue of studiousness, long for a form of simple curiosity as a relief from the dark pit of despair and emptiness – then our current plight seems to call for a reframing of how we approach information and, even more, how we stand before reality.

We need a new-found intentionality, a sense of sovereignty, a self-possession and presence of mind that cuts against the spirit of our age. We need to approach the world around us with agency, acting in a purpose-oriented manner.

This way of standing before reality, so necessary for our times, involves a virtue that, for lack of a better name, we can call “personal sovereignty.” As a virtue, personal sovereignty is the mean between the extremes of intemperately seeking to dominate one’s environment and passively waiting for the next distraction to captivate one’s attention. Having a healthy sense of self-possession and agency, key aspects of the virtue of personal sovereignty, does not mean one is closed to the outside world, to one’s environment. It is good to be open to the world so as to be ready to receive, from a place of interior strength, what comes our way with an optimistic spirit. For one with personal sovereignty, the world will be seen as good, not mere fodder to be dominated according to subjective desires.

The best ascetical way for one to achieve personal sovereignty is to follow a plan, a self-designed schedule to help intentionally use time well. Time is a treasure, a great and limited gift that our Creator has granted each of us. To simply “pass the time” as one aimlessly meanders through life is an abuse of one’s freedom, as if freedom were simply standing before multiple options, paralyzed by the possibility that taking a determined step could prevent one from taking a different path. Keeping one’s options open, refusing to commit to a path, is a self-imposed form of slavery. Without decision, the possibility of acting starts to slip away. One moves closer to the state of dull boredom, perhaps slower if one resists indulging curiosity through captivating entertainment. A few hours spent watching TikTok videos may be the fast way into the pit, but the aimlessness of keeping one’s options open also leads there. The state of dull boredom could not be further from true freedom, which is exercised precisely in intentionally embarking on a chosen adventure.

Following a schedule is key. When one takes five minutes to plan how he is going to spend his afternoon, he is taking control of his time and establishing the possibility of acting out of freedom. For those who know the spirit of our age and how we have all been conditioned by this spirit, following a schedule can be a powerful ally. A teenager with some self-knowledge may jot down a modest study plan, including specific academic tasks (reading the assigned Shakespeare play for thirty minutes followed by twenty minutes of working on math problems) and breaks (spending twenty minutes shooting hoops in the backyard). If he takes the time to come up with a schedule, a plan for how to use his time, he will bring to each task a level of intentionality and focus that otherwise would be difficult to attain. 

This same approach applies to all of us. A busy professional man should have a plan in place even for how he will use his evening time at home. Granted, he should have unscheduled time conversing with his wife and children, but this should be according to a plan. It should be intentionally chosen “wasting time with others,” which is not really wasting time at all. He will have a list of jobs he can do around the house instead of spending too much time reading news or other content. One should never pick up a device unless he or she has a specific plan for using it. It is all too easy to start to follow links or be distracted by online content. It is best not to even pick up the cell phone unless one has a clearly defined and limited goal in mind, such as using up to fifteen minutes to review national or international news, ending at a predetermined stop time and then putting the device aside.

It is ironic that our cultural moment has been born out of and is informed by a desire for freedom, and yet has led to a situation where many are paralyzed, lacking the personal sovereignty to act out of freedom. On the surface, the promise of living according to what authors Charles Taylor and Carl Trueman call “expressive individualism” – the notion that authenticity means acting outwardly in a manner consistent with one’s inner desires and intuitions – seems to accentuate the possibility of acting out of a radical freedom. Our age is marked not only by passivity and anxiety but, at its worst, by a dull boredom resembling despair, from which the decision necessary for authentic human action is nearly impossible. The hallmark of freedom in our time, choosing one’s identity, has more than a hint of surrender. But the contradictions of our age aside, it is possible for us to combat curiosity that leads further into boredom and inaction, regain personal sovereignty, and offer an education to the young that proposes authentic freedom.

Beyond Great Books: An Integrated Education

Intellectual virtue involves not just the mental strength necessary for silent focus, but also forming what St. John Henry Cardinal Newman identifies as a “philosophic outlook.” By this he means a broadminded approach to learning, striving to understand the whole, the “big picture,” even while contemplating specific details from individual fields of study. A scholar with a philosophic outlook is one who understands the overall ordering of knowledge so as to be able to integrate new learning within a sound paradigm. One’s overarching paradigm may be challenged by ongoing study, but having a philosophic outlook demands that one strive for integration, continuing to hone one’s overall perspective. It is a mistake to abandon the quest for a comprehensive understanding of the whole in favor of specialization, to ignore the forest for the trees.

From this perspective, a Great Books approach to education has significant strengths, as well as some weaknesses. As mentioned, students today are unlikely to intemperately consume Great Books like the poor lad Newman mentions. It can be liberating for a media saturated teenager to read a sophisticated text, especially if doing so helps to elevate his intellectual efforts above the din of trivial information and social media. Likewise, as we have argued, engaging primary texts, including Great Books, is a way for us to enter a great conversation about our common humanity that has been going on for millennia. It can be transformative for a student to encounter St. Augustine’s Confessions, especially as a member of a class. The witness of the great saint combines with the witness of how one sees his classmates grappling with profound questions of human meaning and commitment.

On the other hand, there is a danger that someone may encounter Great Books without due attention to forming one’s overall philosophical outlook, without trying to reach integrated knowledge. Someone who experiences encounters with Great Books as liberating from the noise of modern media, may end up settling for sophistication over wisdom. Rather than striving to come to an integrated knowledge of what is true, he may settle for being able to discuss divergent paradigms of influential thinkers at, say, a cocktail party. The person appreciates the different ideas and viewpoints of great authors, but fails to strive for understanding what is true. A Great Books education can lead to a self-satisfied relativist, one who is impressed by his sophistication, by being able to be conversant on such lofty questions.

This tendency is not necessarily a fatal flaw for a Great Books program. It is possible for the faculty to demand that students encountering Great Books not settle for merely understanding what particular authors propose, but also strive to grapple with what is true. Seminar discussions and writing assignments can demand not only that students explain the perspective of a particular author, but also that different perspectives are compared and, more importantly, that this is done in an environment where there is confidence in the value and possibility of reasoning to the truth. A Great Books program can be set up in an ordered way, unified by big questions that transcend any one author. The entire tone of the program can be one that seeks true wisdom rather than mere sophistication.

The best solution to the problem of disunity, however, is to teach sound philosophy and theology at the same time students engage in Great Books seminars. The systematic approach to philosophy and theology, such as presented in the manual tradition, is the perfect compliment to engaging Great Books. On its own, a systematic presentation of philosophical and theological content may seem dry, lacking the witness, for example, of encountering the young Augustine as he grapples with Manicheanism. Even so, a philosophy course that explores the reasons why evil, on a metaphysical level, must be understood as a privation, rather than its own active force, will enrich the encounter of the student with Augustine’s Confessions. The student will know what is at stake on an intellectual level as she enters the drama of Augustine’s struggles with the Manichean perspective on evil. The same is true for theological content. A systematic treatment of the theology of grace will provide a context from which a student will be better able to see what is at stake in the debate between Augustine and Pelagius. And Augustine’s dialogues with Pelagius may be just the thing to drive home the import and meaning of the theological truth that grace is prevenient.

A systematic presentation of philosophy and theology helps students to approach the Great Books and primary source texts of the tradition with the right questions in mind. It is analogous to a teacher who gives a pretest both to see what students know and, to our point, to open questions in the student’s minds, questions that awaken an eagerness for answers in the upcoming days. The synergy between a systematic study of philosophy and theology alongside reading great works from the tradition also drives home the point that relativism is not an option, that we must strive to seek an ordered and integrated understanding. Likewise, a formal study of epistemology helps establish a framework for ordering knowledge. A student who understands the difference between traditional deductive science and modern empirical science will be better able to sift through the polemics of someone like Francis Bacon, for example. Likewise, if a particular Great Books program elects to read Sir Isaac Newton, a student would do well to approach the text with a clear understanding of what a scientific model is. The very language Newton uses can be confusing. Newton’s laws actually are elegant models with explanatory power and limitations, and not abstract ordering principles governing nature, as if the mind of God is being laid bare in mathematical equations. 

About the Author

Michael Moynihan

Head of Upper School, The Heights School

A native of Rochester, NY, Michael Moynihan graduated summa cum laude from the University of Notre Dame Honors Program in 1992. After teaching for one year and earning a master’s degree in theology from The Catholic University of America,

Learn More