12/17/2015 Caitlin M. Brust

On the Examined Life

This magazine article is part of Fall 2015 / Issue 83

"Virtue is worth nothing if you can't follow through with actions."

Sophi Mitchell '19, an F&M student from San Diego, is not asserting her personal opinion. Instead, she's interpreting the ancient writing of Aristotle as her class tackles the meaning of virtue in his "Nicomachean Ethics." Associate Professor of Philosophy Lee Franklin sits at the head of the seminar table in Ware College House, guiding 13 first-year F&M students through a lesson in his Connections course, "What is the Examined Life?"

Class begins with a review of the reading to spark discourse. "That's when it gets really interesting—when we really start to sort things out—because we are engaging with and challenging each other," Franklin says. Today, to dare the young thinkers to grow, he stipulates a strategic rule: "Your ticket into discussion is asking a question." Excellent discourse and writing, he explains, always begin with thoughtful questions.

Franklin's approach instigates contentious thoughts and inquiries. His students navigate complex philosophical language and demand sharp ideas, specific evidence, and clarity from their peers. As they address each other with emerging confidence and excitement about Aristotelian virtue, Franklin holds back the wisdom of his own scholarship. This space is for the students, for their opportunity to grapple with a philosophical concept, so they can develop the intellectual agility to build interpretations of their own.

The pedagogical strategies in the course result from the collaborative work of Franklin and three other faculty members who received an "Enduring Questions" grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2014: Stephen Cooper, professor of religious studies; Amelia Rauser, professor of art history; and Misty Bastian, The Lewis Audenreid Professor of History and Archaeology and Professor of Anthropology. Together as humanistic educators, they each prepared a curriculum that emphasized the practice of reading, thinking, and exploring important texts and fundamental human topics.

Such a course illuminates the challenges of rigorous discourse and the techniques that improve what may be considered intellectual skills. But Franklin and his colleagues clarify that critical thinking, finding central questions, seeking innovative ideas, stirring intense curiosity—and collaborating through discourse—are actually something else: habits of mind. They distinguish deployable skills from an authentic intellectual identity—a lasting worldview and way of engaging with ideas.

Each section of CNX100 was designed to cultivate these habits, driven by course readings that speak directly to the pursuit of human understanding, a lifelong intellectual project. Students explore the works of scholars and poets, playwrights and philosophers, opening their minds to concepts of "human nature, death, fortune, knowledge and ignorance, friendship and love"—the mission of the CNX100 syllabus. Each discussion encourages students to think deeply and draw upon personal experiences and intuitions.

In the Ware seminar room, Franklin asks his students what it means to be virtuous. August Voelk '19, a native of Harvard, Mass., points out Aristotle's three necessary states of virtuous action: Have knowledge of virtue. Choose a virtuous act for itself, and not for any other motivation. Proceed from a firm and unchanging state.

"I think Aristotle means that a virtuous person has the ability to act consistently," Voelk says. "To possess virtue, it takes more than just stumbling upon it."

Voelk and Mitchell observe Aristotle's meaning in different ways. Mitchell notices that good intentions are not enough; they must be acted upon. Voelk points out that actions are not virtuous without self-awareness and consistency. Their debate, shared with peers, reveals a fundamental characteristic of learning in the humanities: to pursue understanding of "Nichomachean Ethics," an exercise that made them think critically, they were also challenged to examine themselves.

Stronger questions and conclusions spark more debate, but the class must end on time. Franklin asks: "Did you think you had so much to say about Aristotle?"

The students shake their heads and smile in satisfaction. 

  • philosophy class 2
  • philosophy class 1
  • philosophy class 3
  • philosophy class 4

CNX100A: What Is The Examined Life?

Lee Franklin, associate professor of philosophy

Fall 2015 Semester
Wednesday and Friday, 1 p.m. – 2:20 p.m.
Ware College House seminar room

Selected readings

  • Sophocles, Oedipus the King
  • Plato, The Trial and Death of Socrates
  • Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 
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