Austrian Catholic philosopher Josef Seifert is former Dietrich von Hildebrand Chair of Realist Phenomenology at the International Academy of Philosophy and is president of the John Paul II Academy for Human Life and the Family. This weekend, he spoke in Warsaw at the Second International Congress of the European Society for Moral Philosophy on the topic, “Is Hope Morally Good?” Elisa Grimi, executive director of the society, recently sat down with him to discuss his lecture, the meaning of hope, and the future of Europe.
The topic chosen this year for the Second International Congress of the ESMP is “Hope.” What hope should we have for Europe's future?
It is impossible for me to answer your question before thanking you for creating, against all kinds of obstacles, and with admirable vision and energy, this growing and flourishing European Society for Moral Philosophy. I am honored to be a member of ESMP.
I think that in the face of the human, moral, and ideological destructive forces at work in the European Union—aimed at constructing what some have called a “false Europe”—the choice of hope as our topic is most fortunate. A deep reflection on hope leads to a decisive critique of the empty façade of European peace and happiness. Europe’s hope must be true hope, based on truth and justice, not on delusions of constructing a smiling present and future that are rotten from within. Gabriel Marcel, a great European philosopher of the last century, called “hope the stuff of which the soul is made.” It is likewise the stuff of which the soul of Europe is made. The hope without which man and Europe will lose their souls requires deep philosophical and moral reflection.
Where hope for the future of Europe is not altogether dying or dead, authentic hope is all too often being replaced by cheap and superficial ideologies. I hope very much that our reflections will help Europe to discover its true hope and move away from illusory and disastrous pseudo-hopes that will destroy us in the end.
Many prominent intellectuals have noted that Europe is facing a crisis of identity—such as the signers of the Paris Statement, including scholars Philippe Bénéton, Rémi Brague, Ryszard Legutko, Pierre Manent, and Roger Scruton, among others. What is your opinion on this subject? The Paris Statement is full of hope for a better Europe, but do you think its suggestions are actually feasible?
I believe that the Paris declaration makes clear the difference between the good Europe we should hope for and the bad Europe we should dread. It seems to me that while this document is “full of hope,” it is likewise full of concern that any good hope might be dashed to pieces if we do not attend to the true foundations of human rights, goods, and peace in Europe. The declaration realistically distinguishes the true Europe from the false one. But any impression that we will be able to move almost automatically into a Europe we can believe in and hope for would be pure illusion. We have to work, we have to fight, we have to think, and we have to pray in order to move to the Europe we hope for.
You addressed the conference with a lecture on “Is Hope Morally Good?” What was your thesis?
Not every kind of hope is good, let alone morally good. The hope of the terrorist to overthrow a good government is not good; the hope to succeed with disastrous educational reforms in which the true heritage of Europe is lost and schools become instruments of immoral ideology is not good.
Hope begins where our own power to realize the good ends. This hope must be reasonable to be desirable and must be directed to other persons on whom the realization of our good aspirations depends. Therefore, the better and more perfect the person in whom we put our hope and the mightier he or she is, the more rational is our hope. Unlike mere optimism, hope can only meaningfully be directed to a person, and to a completely trustworthy person who can grant us what we hope for. Hope, to make sense, presupposes a good and loving God. Thus, the reawakening of the true Europe requires also a religious rebirth. Placing all our hope in human ingenuity, good will, and power is illusory and even a kind of “damned hope.”
In 2017 you published The Moral Action: What Is It and How Is It Motivated? Can you tell us a bit about the book’s argument?
In this book, I defend a vision of moral goodness against utilitarian ethics and against hedonist and eudaimonist visions of morality, which strive primarily to achieve pleasure. True moral virtue is impossible without wanting what is intrinsically good for its own sake—just as true love, to which I have dedicated another book, is impossible without self-donation and affirmation of other persons for their own sakes.
I defended in this book the central Socratic insight that it is better for man to suffer injustice than to commit it, and that it does not serve man to gain the whole world by suffering harm in his soul. An ethics of the intrinsically good that is good always and in all situations also abandons the evil Machiavellian principle of private and public life: that the good end justifies evil means. Such a consequentialist and “unethical ethics” threatens humanity.
Your book Christian Philosophy and Free Will is slated for publication in 2019. Can you give us a foretaste? What is the main thesis?
In this book I distinguish many bad understandings of “Christian Philosophy” that abandon authentic rational philosophical knowledge and replace it with fideism—a kind of fides sine ratione, which is not even possible. Other bad interpretations of “Christian philosophy” are based on a complete rationalism that wholly absorbs Christianity and has nothing to do with Christian faith. When Hegel called his philosophy “Christian,” he hid under the word a total reversal of Christian dogmas. In the book, I also defend many positive relations between Christian faith and philosophy. John Finnis, a good friend and great Australian-English moral philosopher, has graced it with a preface.
I finished a more comprehensive version in Spanish in 2017 with the title Christian Philosophy and Purest Reason. It argues, broadly, that Christian faith necessarily presupposes reason and philosophical knowledge, but that faith must never replace philosophy. If it does so, “Christian philosophy” will be either bad philosophy or no philosophy at all. Rather, faith allows the philosopher morally and intellectually a more rigorous, more profound, and far more pure rationality. In the encounter with the mysteries of Christian faith, pure reason finds its supreme fulfillment. Purest reason also alludes to the most pure Virgin. Her supreme virtues and humility opened her intellect perfectly for knowledge of the truth.
St. Bonaventure had a marvelous image of Christian philosophy: the image of the two lights. If you once have seen the world in the light of sun, you will also see much more of it in the far weaker light of the moon and the stars at night. Similarly, once the same reality has been illumined by divine revelation, you will also see much more of it by human reason.
One of the most important points of this argument is that, notwithstanding Calvinist and other attempts to see human free will as an enemy to grace and Christian faith, men’s and the angels’ and God’s free will are the column without which the entire edifice of Christian faith would collapse. Neither God nor devil, neither creation nor redemption, neither sin nor hell nor heaven, would make any sense without free will. In fact, denying free will to created persons would turn God Himself into the devil, who alone would be responsible for our sins. This is not just erroneous and irrational; this is a diabolical idea.
You were a close collaborator and dear friend of Pope John Paul II. What, in your opinion, is his greatest teaching?
In the footsteps of St. Anselm of Canterbury, Karol Wojtyła introduced a revolutionary novelty into the philosophy and theology of hope, a novelty of dimensions that neither he nor Pope Benedict nor his worldwide followers in philosophy have realized yet.
Hope was always related in past philosophies to our own supreme happiness and fulfillment. Therefore, St. Thomas said that hope is a lesser virtue than love because hope turns to God only as fountain of our own happiness. Karol Wojtyła, in contrast, has pointed out that if we love, we cannot hope for the good of our beloved less than for our own. Hope is wholly permeated by love and extends to the other’s happiness as well. (This is also deeply related to Dietrich von Hildebrand’s marvelous analysis of te intentio benevolentiae of love in his book The Nature of Love.)
St. Anselm had said, similarly, that in heaven we will not less rejoice in the blessedness of other persons than in our own, such that with each entry of a blessed in heaven our joy will be doubled and multiplied. He adds that each soul in heaven will be infinitely happier to experience the infinite blessedness of God than to live its own blessedness. A similar relation as the one between love, benevolence, and happiness also dominates the relations between love and hope.
Josef Seifert is former Dietrich von Hildebrand Chair of Realist Phenomenology at the International Academy of Philosophy and is president of the John Paul II Academy for Human Life and the Family.