My first week of classes this semester in Poland

The new semester is off to an excellent start.

On Mondays, we have a three-hour class called Main Problems and Methods of Philosophy. The class is divided into three sections: First we are quizzed on the assigned reading with a question or two to which we give short responses to demonstrate what we understand and remember from the text. Among these texts are Ajdukiewicz’s Problems and Theories of Philosophy and Rea’s Metaphysics: The Basics.

We devote the second hour to the study of thinkers we choose. For example, we’ll be reading from Karl Jaspers’ Man in the Modern Age, which is my recommendation.

In the third hour, we practice thinking and logic. We discuss the nature and meaning of definitions, distinctions, and arguments and then analyze, for example, Plato’s Meno, using precise philosophical terms to discuss Socrates’ method.

Our professor encouraged us to check out the Wireless Philosophy Youtube channel; and the Philosophy Bites podcast for some bonus material.

In this class, we’ll also be discussing such texts as Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue and Max Scheler’s Ressentiment – two books I’ve been intending to read and study.

Next, we have our Metaphysics and Philosophical Anthropology seminar during which we have an opportunity to present and discuss our thesis work with other students and with our professors. Students here are writing on such topics as: the metaphysical and anthropological mistakes in contemporary gender theory; John Paul II’s theology of the body; the transcendental properties of being; the dynamism of the acting person; religion as an existential response to the experience of contingency; a comparative analysis of the self in Western and Chinese philosophy; and responsibility in the philosophical anthropology of Wojtyła.

Next, we had our class on Karol Wojtyła’s Love and Responsibility with Father Szostek, who was a student of Wojtyła. One of the highlights of this class is listening to his anecdotes about Wojtyła/John Paul II. Usually we discuss Love and Responsibility, but every now and again, Fr. Szostek gives us a lecture on Wojtyła’s philosophical criticism of Marxism or on Pope John Paul II’s practical resistance to Communism. 
On our first Monday, reconvening to continue this yearlong class from the first semester, we discussed the nature of love as willing another person’s good. This raises many interesting and practical questions: What is it to will another person’s good? Can we even know what is good for ourselves, let alone for others? Can a failure to will the actual good of others help us to diagnose the reasons for the brokenness we find in relationships between couples, between parents and children, and between friends? What is the content of the good we will? To what extent is this content mysterious?

That was the was first Monday of the new semester.

On Tuesdays, I don’t have any scheduled classes, so I usually go to the Majdanek Museum and Memorial to study the Holocaust and some contextual history, lend a hand with editing the English translations of survivor testimonies or museum materials, and learn more about the particulars of the site itself so to become able to guide visitors. 
On Wednesdays, there’s a class on Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae during which we discuss various anthropological topics.Thomas Aquinas statue at KUL
Next, we have a yearlong class on Plato’s Republic. We examined this passage in which Socrates responds to Glaucon saying:

But in truth justice was, as it seems, something of this sort; however, not with respect to a man’s minding his external business, but with respect to what is within, with respect to what truly concerns him and his own. He doesn’t let each part in him mind other people’s business or the three classes in the soul meddle with each other, but really sets his own house in good order and rules himself; he ar- ranges himself, becomes his own friend, and harmonizes the three parts, exactly like three notes in a harmonic scale, lowest, highest and middle. And if there are some other parts in between, he binds them together and becomes entirely one from many, moderate and harmonized. Then, and only then, he acts, if he does act in some way—either concerning the acquisition of money, or the care of the body, or something political, or concerning private contracts. In all these actions he believes and names a just and fine action one that preserves and helps to produce this condition, and wisdom the knowledge that supervises this action; while he believes and names an unjust action one that undoes this condition,’ and lack of learning, in its turn, the opinion that supervises this action. – Book IV, 443d-e.

To roughly paraphrase and summarize a 1.5-hour class in a short paragraph:

“Priests have a peculiar experience of the human being,” my priest-prof attested. “Do you know many persons who are living their lives in order? It seems that people are beset by so many problems and a lot of unhappiness. With divorce, domestic violence, a lot of disorder in family life, it seems that injustice is ruling in our families and countries. And so, it does not seem to be enough to describe justice as this harmony since people do not live it. Because of the real situation in the world, Plato, like Jesus, would like to redeem us from our disorders- Plato by philosophy and Jesus by grace. If we seem to have found a definition of justice in Socrates here, clearly our work is not done. We still need to understand what the good is and why we do not have the harmony of order between truth and goodness in our souls.”

After a ten-minute break to grab some fruit, we returned for a class with this same professor on Augustine’s De Libero Arbitrio [On the Free Choice of the Will]. In this class, our professor is Polish and the students are Canadian, American, Spanish, Maltese, Nigerian, and Chinese. In Augustine’s dialogue, my friend Brian plays Evodius and I’m Augustine. (And whenever we read Plato aloud, he’s some foolish interlocutor and I’m Socrates – haha).

In this first class, we discussed whether or not Plato and Aristotle have theories of the will and the distinctly Christian theories of the will in St. Paul and St. Augustine that situate the source of evil in our own disordered affections. What insights did Augustine contribute to anthropology? Do the examples of sins that Augustine gives in his dialogue on free will correspond to the key virtues we find in Plato?

I’m excited about this class because it is already helping me to reflect on Hannah Arendt’s intellectual journey from her study of Love and St. Augustine, to her study of thinking, willing, and judgment, to her analysis of evil in the trial of Adolf Eichmann.

Evil it will not see, for evil lies
not in God’s picture but in crooked eyes,
not in the source but in malicious choice,
and not in sound but in the tuneless voice.
– from J.R.R. Tolkien’s poem “Mythopoeia

On Thursday, it was time for my class on Immanuel Kant, which I expected to be terrible. Or perhaps something like this but without the instrumental background music:

But, the class was great. The professor began, “This edition of Kant that we’ll be using is cheap because it’s old and the author is dead, so he doesn’t need the money.” He clearly communicated to us the aims of the class, including: 1) to get to know Kant’s philosophy, 2) to read and understand Kant’s difficult book(s), 3) to exercise philosophical discussion on moral topics, 4) to study the ‘supreme principle of morality’, and 5) to write an essay on Kant’s ethics.

Then he gave us some reasons why Kant matters, the most interesting of which is that Kant was influential for Wojtyła’s personalism. Our professor explained, “I’m not a Kantian philosopher. I don’t agree with him on many things, but he can teach us to think through things.” He gave a brief overview of virtue ethics, deontological ethics, and utilitarian ethics and suggested that Wojtyła is “between virtue and deontological ethics.” He explained that the aim of this class would be to meet Kant “face-to-face” by reading his own texts.” As for me,” our professor said, “I’m old, so I have to read secondary literature but you, while you are young: meet authors directly.”

Speaking of face-to-face encounters, our professor tells us that his professor used to travel monthly to Krakow to have seminars with Roman Ingarden, “the best Polish phenomenologist and a direct student of Husserl.” He also mentioned that he and his friend, another one of our professors, also teach in secondary schools and gives lectures to high schoolers who are part of a society of Young Humanists. “Pupils ask very good questions,” he reflected. “Sometimes their questions are very naive, but they are actually quite hard to answer, so it’s a very good exercise for philosophers. It’s also very fun, working with young people.”

There is also an advantage to studying philosophy in a class with students and teachers who speak English as a second, third, or fourth language. The advantage is that we all have a sensitivity to communicating clearly with one another. No one tries to be confusing or to needlessly complicate things. Furthermore, this experience trains us to avoid speaking in cliches and using bad analogies. Our professor explained, “I was born in Communist Poland which means I was required to learn Russian and English was not popular. Please speak slowly and loudly. Communication is the most important for us.” To hear that “communication is the most important” from the professor with whom I will study Kant has made me optimistic about this class.

Arendt: “All I can say is I always knew I’d study philosophy. Since the age of 14.”
Günter Gaus: “Why?”
Arendt: “I read Kant. You may ask why I read Kant. For me, the question was either I study philosophy or I drown myself. Not because I did not love life. As I said before, I had this need to understand.”
– Zur Person Interview

We have a second class with this professor immediately after the first one. This class is called “Methods of Philosophical Discussions and Arguments.”

After that, in the afternoon, we have a class on Aristotle. Currently, we are continuing to discuss Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Soon we will take up his book De Anima [On the Soul].

Finally, on Fridays, we have a Latin Translation class.

So, there’s a summary of Week 1 of the new semester at the Catholic University of Lublin!

If you’re interested in studying here, click here. Friends, if  you’d like to hang out in Poland or meet up in some European city for a couple days, let me know!

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