Sophi Mitchell is interpreting the ancient writing of Aristotle as her class tackles the meaning of virtue in the philosopher's "Nicomachean Ethics." "Virtue is worth nothing if you can't follow through with actions," she says.
The class members are in the seminar room at Ware College House, where Associate Professor of Philosophy Lee Franklin is guiding 13 first-year Franklin & Marshall College students through a lesson in his Connections course, "What is the Examined Life?"
"Your ticket into discussion is asking a question," Franklin says, explaining how compelling discourse and writing always begin with thoughtful questions.
The students navigate the complex language and address each other with confidence and excitement about Aristotelian virtue. Franklin listens. This is the students' opportunity to grapple with a philosophical concept, so they can develop the intellectual agility to build interpretations of their own.
Finally, Franklin asks his students what it means to be virtuous. August Voelk cites Aristotle's three states of virtuousness: 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."
Class began 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.
The course illuminates the challenges of rigorous discourse and techniques that improve intellectual skills. Franklin says critical thinking and collaborative discussions are habits of mind.
Voelk and Mitchell observe Aristotle's meaning in different ways. Mitchell notes that good intentions are not enough; they must be acted upon. Voelk points out that actions are not virtuous without self-awareness and consistency.
The debate reveals why learning the humanities – such as understanding "Nichomachean Ethics" – is important. It makes students think critically and challenges them to examine themselves.