In July 2014, the Institute of Ideas will run its fourth Academy. The Academy is a three-day residential event for designed to remind us just what universities should be like and to demonstrate the importance of scholarship through an examination of subjects in depth.
The Academy features parallel track lecture series over the course of three days – on History, Literature, Classics -‐ and a plenary series – on moral thought. The theme of the Academy in 2014 is morality. Systems of morality (ethics) distinguish between actions and intentions as being ‘good’ or ‘bad’. And moral thought often distinguishes between what is wrong for a given culture or moral code (descriptive ethics) and what is actually right or wrong (normative ethics). Through history there have been many types of morality: aristocratic, religious, conservative, socialist, scientific, therapeutic, to name a few. Some make ahistorical claims: for example the view of Aristotle and Aquinas that the good is what all things strive for. Some, like Burke, find what is right in historical tradition. Enlightenment thinkers, Kant for example, allowed room for both universal morality (the categorical imperative given by our nature as rational agents) and the specific duties demanded by particular groups or societies. Since then there has arguably been an increasing trend towards seeing morality as determined by either external factors (society, culture, evolution) or by the individual himself (existentialism, moral relativism, self-realisation). Both approaches tend to share a common assumption, however, which is expressed by the idea of a death of God: both aim to be moral systems suitable to a secular age. This assumption is that expressed by Schiller’s phrase ‘the disenchantment of the world’: the idea that goodness is no longer to be found in the human world. Weber of course took on Schiller’s phrase to describe life in modern, bureaucratic, secular Western society: dominated by science rather than faith, by pragmatism not idealism, and by rational process rather than tradition and intuition. In short, life in what Weber called an ‘iron cage’ or a ‘shell as hard as steel’ (Stahlhartes Gehäuse) is one dominated by a tension between the individual and society but a tension unresolvable by any system of morality outside society: as expressed by the metaphorical death of God.
The Academy will look at the unfolding of moral thinking through history: from its origin in Western thought with Socrates who, in his determination to pursue his individual sense of what is right, can be seen as a prefigurement of Christ. The second lecture on the struggle of the Jews against Roman might in the first century A.D. will discuss the Great Revolt in terms of the birth of Christianity in a struggle for religious freedom and the acceptance, through defeat, of its postponement until the Kingdom of God. Two plenary lectures on key Enlightenment thinkers - Edmund Burke and Adam Smith - will develop the tension found in morality between freedom as an ideal and freedom as a material reality while tracing the growing separation of morality from religion and its resulting politicisation. The two final lectures on the French Revolution and the First World War will look at the failed idealism of the former and the bloody realities of the latter and discuss what remains of a morality seeming to lack foundations.
Through literature: from chivalry to realism in Don Quixote, the end of tradition as seen in the historical novel, the possibilities and challenges of freedom for women as seen in fiction and the falling away of all moral sureties in the fiction of the early twentieth century.
And in the classics: in the might-is-right doctrines found in Thucydides, the clash between the choices of men and the will of the gods in the plays of Euripides and, hundreds of years later, in the struggle between duty and passion in Virgil’s Aeneid. A separate lecture will examine the way in which aesthetics and morality have been considered: from Plato’s expulsion of the arts from his ideal Republic to Kant’s view that beauty is the symbol of morality.
With the addition of short lectures on related themes, the Academy as a whole will look at the question whether or not man can live a good life without God or only with God or if looking at the question that way at all is itself merely an excuse for the failure to be morally human.
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