[This is another addition to our ongoing General Conference Odyssey — which project you can also check out via our facebook page. To learn a little about the reasons which motivated this project, you can visit this article at Meridian Magazine.]
Dallin H. Oaks was a brand new President of Brigham Young University when he addressed the Priesthood session of the October 1971 General Conference on the theme “Strive for Excellence.”
This topic is red meat for me as a BYU Professor and a student of the history of political philosophy. “Excellence” is in fact the root meaning of our word “virtue,” and the meaning of virtue and the relation of the idea of excellence to particular moral and political communities are founding themes of classical political philosophy, the tradition that goes back to Plato and Aristotle.
The great, central question of this classical tradition may be put in this way: what is the relationship between the excellence (virtue, fulfillment, highest good) of the individual and the excellence (virtue, independence, strength) of the political community? This question immediately alerts us to a profound problem: the excellence of the human being seems to be one thing, and the excellence conducive to the good of the community, and notably to political order and strength, quite another. Moreover, different political communities have their own circumstances, histories, and characters, and the excellence of each will be adapted to the needs of that particular community.
Human nature has its specific virtue. To translate this “virtue” into religious terms, think: ultimate excellence, or fulfillment, or salvation or exaltation, has, we think, a universal and eternal meaning. But different communities, cultures, polities define virtue each in its own way. For example, when Tocqueville, a Frenchman, visited America in 1830, he noted that Americans then praised qualities connected with entrepreneurship and money-making (thrift, industry, material ambition) which France’s more traditional society would despise. What counted as a virtue in America (laudable energy in money-making) would be held to be a vice in France (avarice).
So, as soon as I read Pres. Oaks’ title, I cannot help but conceive the question: is “excellence” univocal? Does it connote the same things for us as Mormons as it does for us as Americans, or, more particularly, as professors, students, scholars, etc., involved in the world of higher education?
As if my philosopher’s ears weren’t already pricked up enough, Elder Oaks actually begins with a quotation from a philosopher regarded as a founder of modern political thought: Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), author of Leviathan. Hobbes had a certain view of human nature, which, Oaks explains, is good to know about, precisely because it is much opposed to the view of Latter-day Saints:
In describing the nature of man, Hobbes wrote that “the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” This is a classic example of the philosophies of man. I am grateful that my education exposed me to that thought and others like it, because my familiarity with these thoughts has helped me to understand the world and its peoples and its problems.
But most of all, I am grateful that my educational program was such that at the time I was exposed to this view of man, I was also being taught these lines:
“Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.” (2 Ne. 2:25.)
“Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God.” (D&C 18:10.)
The worlds were created by the Only Begotten of the Father, “and the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God.” (D&C 76:24.)
“For a wise and glorious purpose thou hast placed me here on earth. …” (“O My Father,” Hymns, No. 138.)
“… they who keep their second estate shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever.” (Abr. 3:26.)
“Wherefore, as it is written, they are gods, even the sons of God—Wherefore, all things are theirs. …” (D&C 76:58–59.)
President Oaks of course embraces the scriptural view of human nature and of the human condition, but he is glad to learn about Hobbes’s view, for it helps us to understand much about “the world and its peoples and its problems.” He believes such “secular” learning, combined with more “spiritual” knowledge, can “prepare [us] for a balanced and full life of service to God and fellowman.”
It is this view of combining Hobbesian knowledge with scriptural knowledge, pursuing secular and spiritual learning, each on its own track, so to speak, that seems to underlie Pres. Oaks’ approach to BYU’s educational mission:
My personal experience converts me to the wisdom of the educational philosophy that joins spiritual with secular instruction. At Brigham Young University and in the other institutions of the Church Educational System, we are concerned with teaching the fundaments of spiritual and secular knowledge and with bringing those teachings into harmony in the lives of men and women in order to prepare them for a balanced and full life of service to God and fellowman.
Pres. Oaks goes on to “distill” four “thoughts” from this general philosophy, including these two:
1. Rigorous standards and high achievement in any field of learning are not at odds with faith and devotion to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Strive for excellence, use the talents that the Lord has given you, meet and master the learning of men.
2. In approaching any field of learning, remember the Lord’s direction to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118.)
I note the term “excellent,” and again raise the question whether this term is univocal. Does striving for “excellence” mean the same thing in the Hobbesian or secular world as in a gospel context? Presumably not. But then the question is, is striving for excellence in the world defined by Hobbes (to simplify) compatible with the pursuit of virtue in an eternal perspective?
In principle, I certainly believe that the pursuit of truth by the natural means of study is perfectly compatible with the spiritual pursuit of spiritual truth. Indeed, I believe that the right exercise of reason and the exercise of faith are two complementary aspects of the quest for a single truth. But is this “educational philosophy” oriented towards eternal truth compatible with the definition of “excellence” that prevails in an educational system increasingly dominated by a perspective more like Hobbes’?
The question is not: should we study Hobbes (and other secular philosophers, scientists, writers, etc.), as well as the Gospel. I teach Hobbes, and I think there is great value in studying him. The question is, has our very definition of “excellence” in higher education – “rigorous standards and high achievement” –been conditioned by a Hobbesian notion of success (endless quest for material security and gain), and is the pursuit of such “excellence” compatible with the virtue of a son or daughter of God?
I would say that the tension between virtue for the soul and virtue for the secular academic community is much greater than it was when Pres. Oaks spoke in 1971. Already in 1975, during Oaks’ tenure as BYU President, the Prophet (Pres. Kimball) was warning against the confusion of eternal excellence with the world’s standards:
We can sometimes make concord with others, including scholars who have parallel purposes. By reaching out to the world of scholars, to thoughtful men and women everywhere who share our concerns and at least some of the items on our agenda of action, we can multiply our influence and give hope to others who may assume that they are alone.
In other instances, we must be willing to break with the educational establishment (not foolishly or cavalierly, but thoughtfully and for good reason) in order to find gospel ways to help mankind. Gospel methodology, concepts, and insights can help us to do what the world cannot do in its own frame of reference.
In some ways the Church Educational System, in order to be unique in the years that lie ahead, may have to break with certain patterns of the educational establishment. When the world has lost its way on matters of principle, we have an obligation to point the way. We can, as Brigham Young hoped we would, “be a people of profound learning pertaining to the things of this world,” but without being tainted by what he regarded as the “pernicious, atheistic influences” that flood in unless we are watchful. Our scholars, therefore, must be sentries as well as teachers!
The pursuit of truth in a perspective of eternity is integral to the great heritage of Western universities. But this heritage has been put on the defensive in recent decades by the increasing influence of what one might a Hobbesian perspective radicalized by a Nietzschean perspective (after the German philosopher Nietzsche, 1844-1900). Hobbes did much to foster the influence of scientific materialism and the endless process of specialization inherent in the method of modern technological science. This hyper-specialization leaves little room for investigation of eternal questions related to the excellence or virtue of the soul. Nietzsche sought to overcome scientism, but in no way promoted openness to eternal truth. On the contrary, he proposed that “truth” itself was a mere human construction, and that all “values” are creations of the human will.
As I have argued at greater length elsewhere, in the contemporary university hyper-specialization and its deterministic presuppositions (Hobbes) prevail alongside moral relativism and an emphasis on “power” as the ultimate reality of moral and political life (Nietzsche). One way or another, as a materialistic political scientist and as a theorist of sheer power, Hobbes has carried the day in secular education.
And so our pursuit of “excellence” involves a tension that had not yet come to the surface for Pres. Oaks in 1971. If we don’t study Hobbes (and other founders of modern secularism) enough to experience this tension, then we will be Hobbesians and secularists despite our religious rhetoric. The virtue of the soul and the demands of the city have never perfectly coincided, and now they are drifting further apart than ever.
“Excellence,” alas, cannot always be taken at face value. Our system of higher education is not morally neutral or unproblematic. Mama, don’t let your sons and daughters grow up to be Hobbesians.
More posts from others in this week’s General Conference Odyssey
- Mormon Privilege (By Nathaniel Givens at Difficult Run)
- Yes, you can get there from here (By Daniel Ortner at Symphony of Dissent)
- Don’t Do Acrid (By John Hancock at the Good Report)
- Commandments and Compassion (By Michelle Linford at Mormon Women)
- Becoming a Male Mother (By Silver Rain at The Rains Came Down)
- The Way Back into Love (By Chastity Wilson at Comfortably Anachronistic)
- It Takes Men and Women (By Jan Tolman at LDS Women of God)