The mission of the Institute is to foster knowledge of the institutions and ideals of Western Civilization and how they have evolved. This mission comes at a time when such knowledge is harder and harder to find in the curricula of most colleges and universities. In that regard we are the extended version of what is captured in the movie title “Dead Poets Society.” Our primary hope is to provide a space especially for students, but also for alums, interested citizens and all those who are open to ideas, to meet and discuss the ideas that have shaped our world. We reach out to those across every spectrum of society who are open to the true love of ideas, a love that is so natural to our species.
In his monumental Phenomenology of Spirit, the philosopher Hegel famously noted that the modern world of the 19th century that he occupied was increasingly driven by abstract ideas. He correctly predicted that that dynamic of abstractness would intensify. The Classical authors, he observed, confronted life more directly, naturally, without the intervening lens of abstractions. It is especially important in the late modern world to be able to put into perspective the competing abstractions that determine our political, moral, aesthetic and intellectual environment.
Those determining ideas have come from decidedly different phases of modern philosophy, and overlay both Classical and Christian foundations as well. To give but the briefest of indications of the situation, our institutions are driven by the new mode of thinking in modern science that descends from what is unique about modern philosophy. Modern philosophy consciously tried to make a break with pre-modern and pre-scientific relations to reality. We increasingly forget the philosophical commitments that have become buried in the modern, technological, scientific society at a time when we are uneasy about its potential downside to the environment and the very natural foundation of our human genetic make-up.
There was an initial stage of modern philosophy that not only launched modern science, but, despairing of the sclerotic nature of feudal class structure that left most in poverty, saw commerce as a means to greater freedom and well-being for large numbers of individuals. This liberal commercial republicanism still shapes our thinking and institutions although even its strongest supporters have frequently become alienated from the deepest philosophical basis of their position. This stage of modern philosophy was met by another set of thinkers who found the commercial society that emerged to be morally and aesthetically unpleasing. On some shared modern premises, as well as different philosophical principles, they launched what became socialism and communism. Then were was yet another stage of thinkers reacting to all prior moments in modern thought who launched a critique of modern reason, the modern self, the technology that descends from modern science, and launched the postmodern and deconstructionist moment now fashionable. These attacks on Western Civilization more generally are Modern Western all too Modern Western. There is the irony.
All of these currents of modern thought are like waves crossing over us, especially those of us in open societies. Our politics becomes tendentious and confrontational because we are arguing from different, abstract philosophical foundations. We get, therefore, only a cacophony of voices, people talking past each other or only to their own armed camp. Only the mind that can understand how philosophical ideas determine the late modern world, in a way that was not true in the pre-modern world, can hope to navigate the present environment. This should be central to a genuine liberal, liberating education.
Only on a basis of an understanding of our intellectual past can we understand the increasingly abstract world we occupy. To see our way beyond the abstractions of modern life, it is equally important to try to recover the more direct, natural, pre-modern understanding of reality that modern thinkers tried to replace. This is what repeatedly leads open minds back to the beauty, noble simplicity and clarity of the classical thinkers from whom, and in whose revolutionary thinking, the Western world emerged on the basis of what is implied in Socratic questioning and trying to live a fully conscious life out in the open light of reflection. It is the greatest of mistakes to blame these thinkers for the world they occupied. All great thinkers are “untimely,” and are critical of their present moment. This was true of the Classical authors. Only by imposing upon those authors the late modern premise that philosophy is “its own time apprehended in thought” do we fail to see the truly revolutionary character of the Socratic tradition.
We live in a world that has been shaped by ideas at least as much as by natural realities. This is why, unlike every other species, we humans are not hard wired politically, morally, architecturally, and so on. Ideas have consequences. Ideas that become buried and forgotten have the most tyrannical and unfortunate consequences. We cannot hope to build an open society for the majority of human beings without clarity about the foundational nature of ideas. This is especially true regarding the ideas that have built the modern world, and totally determine the fashionable thinking that would cut us off from the entire Western tradition of thought. That project descends from latest permutation of dissatisfied modern philosophy. It is ironic that at a time when billions around the world from Hong Kong to Nigeria and beyond struggle and long for the advantages of a frequently decadent West, the homeland has become determined to bury the basis of its own successes, and the genuine reasons for its failures.
Through reading groups, lectures, colloquia, meetings and discussion dinners the Institute hopes to foster the love of ideas that is so natural to humans, especially the young. We invite every race, creed, gender to join us is this invigoration of ideas and the genuine community it can create. And we invite those who have had the success that Western society fosters to contribute to our cause.