Ponder with me the following three scenarios, based on real life events.

 Scene one: You’re at a luxurious media retreat on the university’s dollar, lounging in your armchairs after a sumptuous square meal, and ready to humor the “diversity” training segment. The moderator poses the question,  “Where do we, as a Catholic institution, draw the line on rap music? Though the beat may be sick, the message is often debasing and the language obscene. On the other hand, we want to be popular!”

No one responds for an awkward minute, presumably because the answer’s as obvious as that of the previous question, “Should you befriend the only Asian in your club?” and answering facile questions is as painful as dancing barefoot on a sea urchin. Obviously there’s more to being a decent human being than being popular, and as members of a serious religious institution, we should promote and uphold good principles by steering our gentle listeners towards wholesome tunes.

Then one of the more gregarious kids raises his hand. “Well, I believe you have to take the aesthetic value into consideration. There’s this great Caddillac Tah song that’s pretty demeaning to women, but I love the feel, so…I played it.” Thoughtful nodding ensues.

Scenario two:  You are out to dinner with a professor. He asks your least favorite literary genre, and you stupidly name precisely the one he specializes in. Graciously, he explains that one of the blessings of an education is its cultivation of your ability to appreciate all works of all genres.

Scene three: You are backstage at a high school production of Beauty and the Beast, and your aspiring sex therapist friend is lecturing a gaggle of wide-eyed freshmen, “Everyone has needs; it’s only natural! That’s how God designed us.” The implication being, of course, that it is good and normal to satisfy those desires whenever and with whomever.

Can you spot the common thread? It is iridescent, deceptively benign. It has to do with an oft-neglected element of education and character formation today, a quest  that has surfaced again and again in the western tradition: learning to love rightly. According to Dante’s Divine Comedy, love drives all actions; following its pull results in both salvation and damnation. It is critical, therefore, to love the right things and in the right way.

Aristotle wrote in the final book of Nicomachean Ethics, “[T]o enjoy the things we ought and to hate the things we ought has the greatest bearing on virtue of character. For these things extend right through life, with a weight and power of their own in respect both to virtue and to the happy life, since men choose what is pleasant and avoid what is painful…”

Until the modern era, the dominant view was that emotional responses could be either appropriate or inappropriate. C.S. Lewis discusses this attitude’s disappearance in The Abolition of Man. Men used to think that a proper education consisted of training children to “like and dislike what they ought.” They believed the universe was constructed in such a way that objects actually merited emotional responses, and therefore responses were proper or improper.  St. Augustine’s conception of virtue, Aristotle’s ideal education, Plato’s Republic, Hinduism’s Rta, and China’s Tao all involve a correct ordering of affection in relation to the world.

Neglecting proper orientation of desire is a dangerous intellectual trend that can have one of three results: cynical despair, insipid tolerance, or wrong-headed drive.

Cynical despair stems from not loving enough. Lewis’s attack on skepticism was especially apt:  “You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it . . . a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things it the same as not to see.”

Skepticism taken to an extreme leaves men with nothing. Guard against this temptation, especially in intellectual communities like universities where uncertainty and cynicism are fashionable.

Such a mindset has the unfortunate result of producing what Lewis calls “Men without Chests.” Such individuals believe themselves great intellectuals, for they reject sentimentalism and are unswayed by passion, but in actuality “[t]heir heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so.” One can observe this sad phenomenon in nearly any world religions class, which dissect Christianity like a puerile fairytale or a noteworthy anthropological event. 

The second result comes from loving indiscriminately and to the point of insignificance. This moral sloppiness supplies a slippery slope into lazy relativism disguised as sophistication and openness. Perhaps it is all right, and in fact good, to dislike Homer’s verses, as I confessed to my professor. The action in the Iliad and Odyssey is incoherent and the values off the mark; it is bad literature, and I don’t want to be “educated” into liking it. Even Plato wanted it banned. Revering texts for their age and cultural influence is respectable, but at some point one must take content into account. Cultivating a vague appreciation for all ideas is an insult to objective truth.

Finally, some desires are in themselves wrongly oriented. Philosophers and theologians alike, from Aristotle to Pope John Paul II, agree that we are burdened with a fallen human nature. Simply because a desire seems “natural” does not mean, as my aspiring sex therapist friend claimed, that it automatically translates to “good,” or “to be pursued.” In this case, it should be classified with other appetites, which are only appropriate to indulge at the right time for the right reasons. The desire for Swedish fish is also natural, but unfortunately it cannot be indulged continuously.

Blindly endorsing innate desires leads to the type of vocational discernment tools some career centers pass out. Do you crave material wellbeing? The respect of others? Social status? Yes, nearly everyone does, but that does not mean these are goals to be pursued for their own sake, standards by which to determine your life’s course.

At times, good and immoral desires may intertwine so that the correct course of action is difficult to discern. Craving the respect of your peers is a normal desire but  not one that should be indulged. Appreciating the aesthetics of Caddillac Tah is fine, but not to the extent that senses dominate reason.

Strunk and White’s advice for good writing applies to life more broadly. They counsel, “[T]ake pains to admire what is good. Then when you write in a way that comes naturally, you will echo the halloos that bear repeating.”

In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle explains, “pleasure is a state of soul, and to each man that which he is said to be a lover of is pleasant; e.g. not only is a horse pleasant to the lover of horses, and a spectacle to the lover of sights, but also in the same way just acts are pleasant to the lover of justice and in general virtuous acts to the lover of virtue.”

So what is an appropriate object of desire? In The City of God, Augustine argues, “If anyone then enjoys what he loves, and loves the true Supreme Good, only the most miserable would deny his happiness.… [T]he true philosopher is the lover of God, since the aim of philosophy is happiness, and he who has set his heart on God will be happy in the enjoyment of him.”

One meaning of “blessed” is blissfully happy. This gives a whole new meaning to the Beatitudes. True happiness is found by those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness.”

An unanticipated bonus of loving rightly may just be temporal and eternal bliss. Happiness, as explained by Augustine, stems from enjoying the object of one’s desire. The one worthy object of desire is God. To love God is to love rightly is to be blessed.

I will close with a gem from Pedro Aruppe, a renowned 20th century Jesuit:  “Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in a love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the mornings, what you will do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks you heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”

Katie Petrik is a junior PLS and Arabic major and can be reached at kpetrik@nd.edu, which doubles as her Dear Annie inbox for questions regarding right love. No solicitations please.