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Ancient Wisdom and Thomistic Wit

September 24, 2018


What is true freedom? Should we define our actions by what we do or by the end we pursue? And what can Groundhog Day and The Matrix tell us about moral goodness?

These are kinds of the questions explored in Ancient Wisdom and Thomistic Wit: Happiness and the Good Life, a breezy but substantive collection of philosophical essays from Fulvio Di Blasi.

Di Blasi is the President of the Thomas International Center, a Catholic education institute that he founded in 2002 with then-colleague at Notre Dame, Ralph McInerny, who praised him as “one of the two or three best young Catholic philosophers in the world today.” Di Blasi has not only studied law, ethics, natural law theory, and Thomistic philosophy, but is also an attorney and a mediator, directing the Di Blasi Law Firm in Italy after and working as a partner in the company ADR Forum. 

Ancient Wisdom reflects the breadth of Di Blasi’s training and the erudition of a man who has understood these subjects in depth. In “Pigs or Souls? Aristotle on Hedonism,” he analyzes Aristotle’s “abrupt and rude” dismissal of the life of pleasure in light of the higher life of knowledge (“the human secret is the capacity to know the truth”); in “Happy as Aquinas or Ethical as Kant?”, he compares and synthesizes the former’s emphasis on happiness and the latter’s emphasis on duty (“duty is not blind to the good”); and in “The Sources of Morality and The Splendor of Truth,” he unpacks the argument that some actions are intrinsically evil regardless of the intention and the circumstances of that action (which “cannot make good an objectively evil action”).

But as he notes in his introduction, this book is not intended to be a technical or exhaustive contribution to moral philosophy. Rather, it’s a “mediating” tool meant to help students and beginners (or to help others help them) “truly enter the world” of ethics in a practical, relatable manner. “Although I know well,” Di Blasi reflects, “that this work of mediation between the abstractness of the technical concepts and the real world to which they refer is both the challenge and the chief task of the teacher, I also think that this task can be partially realized, and certainly facilitated, by writings that are produced and designed with this specific objective….This book is an example of this effort.”

To bridge the gap between technicality and reality, Di Blasi helpfully draws examples from contemporary films. In two essays, he explores the philosophical (and especially Aristotelian) implications of Groundhog Day, a film about a weatherman seemingly doomed to wake up to the same day over and over again. “Morally speaking, Phil was blind at the beginning of the movie, and can see at the end of it,” Di Blasi observes. “This character growth curve is crucial. According to Aristotle’s ethics, it takes a lot of time and practice to develop moral virtue….Moral virtue is not just about making good decisions. It is about having a personality that leads the agent to understand where moral good lies, and, on account of that, to make good decisions concerning it.” This moral progression is mirrored in Phil’s journey from piano novice to virtuoso (which, Di Blasi argues, probably means “Phil probably lives out the same day for at least ten years”). Why? Because like moral development, artistic development “takes commitment, time, and effort.”

Di Blasi later looks at The Matrix, another film commonly analyzed for its philosophical themes, but bypasses the usual metaphysical reading in favor of a moral reading:

“The good guys are those who give up the wealth and carefreeness of the virtual world, preferring to live a bitter truth rather than an apparent happiness in the virtual ignorance generated by the machines. Instead, the bad guy is the one that does the exact opposite…Therefore, in the movie goodness coincides with the truth, even if tough to live with, an malice coincides with the falsehood of the fake world, though pleasing and seemingly happy.”

Modern philosophical discussion is so often dominated by abstract debates in metaphysics, epistemology, and linguistics. But while the search for philosophical truth remains ever-important, Di Blasi’s quick and accessible tour of practical wisdom from ancient sources reminds us that philosophy is not just about finding the correct answers to certain questions; it’s also about entering into a concrete way of life. And the pursuit of the good life, grounded in the source of all goodness, is nothing less than the recipe for true happiness.