We are an unsteady people. Even an hour of watching the Olympics on NBC suffices to show it. Is it sacrifice and teamwork to which we aspire, or the satisfaction of our animal desires? Do we hold perseverance and moderation to be virtues, or cleverness and bold self-presentation? Is it owning that BMW that we so long for, or to be part of a community of which we can be proud? The confusion that characterizes our age is also inside of us. Could our society be so evidently adrift if we Catholics were not ourselves to a degree unmoored?
For those who are looking for help in navigating the troubled waters of our age, Professor Steven Jensen has provided a trustworthy map and compass. His Living the Good Life: A Beginner’s Thomistic Ethics is a most admirable and usable tool to help find the way to smooth waters and a friendly harbor. It is as easy and pleasant to read as a chapter of Jane Austen, and as patiently and carefully reasoned as a Euclidean proposition. Here is perennial wisdom brought to bear on the daily transactions of our lives.
Jensen begins where he finds us: awash in the conflict between our feelings and reason. His assessment is in harmony with that of the sociologist Christian Smith, who has recently identified the common moral stance of young Americans today as a witch’s brew of “G. E. Moore’s antinaturalistic moral emotivism and Richard Rorty’s relativistic moral pragmatism.” In other words, we Americans tend to think—when we think at all—that reason is a less-illuminating beacon than the impulses of our passions. The low-grade hedonism that characterizes our culture in turn shapes our minds. Even good Catholics find it a challenge to believe—much less to articulate—the truth that Jensen affirms with admirable brevity: “Much of the moral life will involve resisting the emotions with their tempting presentation of apparent goods.”
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The first third of Jensen’s study of the moral life is taken up with the emotions, or, as he allows at one point, our “feelings.” An earnest follower of Socrates, he is willing to take up the conversation as he finds it in the town square, inquiring into commonplaces about “feeling good” and “seeming right” and asking what may or may not follow from them. After a deft and serious sifting of claims about emotion, Jensen then tackles the thorny question of acting in accord with our conscience, even should our conscience be misinformed. In the end, what emerges is a persuasive exhortation to pursue reason as our guide: “If we do not use reason to judge our emotions, then we are apt to elevate to the level of ‘natural’ whatever desire seems most pressing at the moment, which will, often as not, lead to our downfall.”
Jensen’s book is not at all preachy. The most prominent example that he uses has to do with the case of being handed an extra $20 by a bank teller. But he is homey without being corny: deeply problematic moral situations are in view throughout the book, and he does not shy away from discussing sexuality when it is necessary and appropriate for him to do so. The key to the book’s success, again, is that he starts his exposition where he finds us: we desire to be good, and we are not quite sure how to go about it.
The middle chapters of Living the Good Life include such Aristotelian-Thomistic staples as the definition of a virtue, the cardinal virtues, the question of how we become virtuous, and a tough-minded chapter on intrinsically evil actions. The survey of the moral life continues with chapters on the intellectual virtues, prudence, and the relationship of the science of ethics to human happiness, and comes to a fitting conclusion by considering God as the end of all our striving. Throughout, Jensen is at his best in setting forth Thomistic distinctions in a language and an order that the general reader can readily appreciate. His citations to the works of Aquinas, chiefly the Summa Theologiae, come in brackets, and they never usurp the argument or the work of explanation. The references are there for those who wish to follow the argument a step further, not to bewilder or impress.
A particularly effective aspect of the book is the way in which the position of Aristotle and Aquinas is differentiated from the leading competing moral theories of our day, Bentham’s utilitarianism and Kant’s conception of a priori duty. The astonishing thing about Living the Good Life is that one never feels that one is being hit over the head with jargon or being asked to wait for the professor to get to the end of his digression. No, the rival views of Bentham and Kant emerge because they help to shed light, by way of contrast, on the true principles of the moral life. And though the book as a whole could be interpreted as a response to Rorty’s brand of sophistry, it is Plato’s character Thrasymachus who makes an appearance, not the contemporary philosopher.
As a result, Jensen has written a book that is readily available to the general reader in a way that few books by professional philosophers are. And given his choice of topics, he could not have chosen a better rhetorical tack. “Ethics does not primarily consist in a list of dos and don’ts, but rather in the directives of how to live a humanly good life.” How true, and because it is true, ethics must not be the province of the professional specialist, but an art of living understood by all those who wish to live well. The essential discoveries were made long ago, chronicled in the pages of Plato’s dialogues, and purified and set in order by Aristotle. The language of ends, voluntary choices, habits, virtues, means to be perceived by the rational principle, and happiness is not only a language hallowed by usage, it is the language that best reveals to us what is intelligible about the experience of our own actions. Since Professor Jensen uses that language, and uses it with great clarity, his book is in a certain sense a compendium of what every Catholic needs to know. Yet it is much more than a compendium. Written in a level-headed, cheerful, and open style, Living the Good Life is much like a conversation with an old and wise friend. To read it is to be reminded that the human capacity to listen to nature and to seek God has not yet been drummed out of our poor culture, in spite of how noisy and inane its public voices have become.
Editor’s note: The image above entitled “La Leçon de Catéchisme” was painted by Jules-Alexis Muenier in 1890.