Can There be Theoria in Xanadu?

Harry Woodburn Chase was president of three universities between 1919 and 1951. His last, longest and most prestigious post was at New York University, where he settled into the chair behind the big desk in 1933. Soon thereafter, at the installation of a new Chancellor, Chase read an address entitled “The Mission of the University,” in which he opined,

“It is not the business of the universities to be instruments of indoctrination and propaganda. It is not their mission, on the one hand, to evolve theoretical utopias, and then condition people for participation in them. Nor is it, on the other hand, their mission to become apologists for the dogma that whatever is, is right” (1).

Chase was asserting that universities should be disinterested in the affairs of the world. They should not be traitorous institutions actively working to subvert the social order, but neither should they be loyal institutions pledged to stand with the social order against all adversaries. In the hurly-burly of life, universities should act as neither enemy nor ally, as neither friend nor foe. They should stand, instead, above the fray, observing the tumults of men and nature with the cool and critical indifference of the Olympian gods.

This perch of detachment is what Aristotle called theoria, or the theoretic life. Theoria is literally the life of a spectator, which is why theoria is often translated as contemplation or the contemplative life. It stands opposed to the life of a participant in the moil of “active life.” It stands apart from work, which is why those who live the life of theoria are called scholars, after the Greek schole, or leisure.

The notion is that detachment from active life allows a man to see things in their true aspect, as they really are. He is not embroiled in a world of appearances that are warped by his passions and perverted by his interests, but is rather abstracted from that world, and so able from that distance to “see life steady, see it whole” (2)

To achieve theoria is to possess “academic freedom” in the deep and original meaning of that controversial concept, for academic freedom is primarily a scholar’s personal freedom from the passions and interests that distort reality for men engaged in active life. The “academic freedom” granted by a state is nothing but a promise to tolerate this rare spiritual quality. The state cannot give academic freedom to a man who never had it in the first place.

It would be hard to argue that today’s universities are carrying out Chase’s mission with any great diligence or fidelity. Indeed, a fair-minded man might find it hard to suppress the suspicion that their mission is now to “evolve theoretical utopias” and defend “the dogma that whatever is, is right.” He might also sense that academic freedom has been transformed into a promise to tolerate professors who neglect theoria, and instead wade into the hurly-burly of active life as rabble-rousers or corporate consultants.

If you have read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, you are aware of another way in which today’s universities depart from the classic understanding of theoria. Along with most of the classical and biblical tradition, Aristotle maintained that the road to theoria runs through the moral life. Orthopraxy was said necessarily to precede orthodoxy, because no man mired in sin could hope to see things in their true aspect. This is one discipline that has been dropped from the university catalogue.

Aristotle names three impediments to orthopraxy: brutality, vice and incontinence. A brutal man lacks moral sense, owing to congenital defect or subsequent accident. A vicious man has corrupted his moral sense through voluntary indulgence and the formation of bad habits. An incontinent man retains his moral sense, but is weak, lacks restraint, and so violates his own good principles.

Brutality, vice and incontinence are not new arrivals on campus. The dissipation of university students has been remarked since the Middle Ages, and in no age has every professor escaped the mire of sin, but until very recently the idea remained that true scholarship was inseparable from some degree of asceticism and austerity. Luxury and learning did not mix. As William Paley put it, “to a vitiated palate no meat has its right taste; with a debauched mind, no reasoning has its proper influence” (3).

If you visit a university today, wander across its verdant lawns, peek into its delightful dormitories and dining halls, take the full measure of its facilities for amusement and pleasure, you will find very little to suggest asceticism and austerity.  What you will find is Xanadu, a stately pleasure dome that would not disappoint Kubla Khan, or perhaps Sardanapalus.  What you will find is a nursery of debauched minds.

My question is, can reasoning have its proper influence in such a place?


(1) Henry Woodburn Chase, “The Mission of the University,” Bulletin of the Association of University Professors, 20, 6 (Oct. 1934): 370-372.

(2) Matthew Arnold, “To a Friend,” (1849)

(3) William Paley, “How Virtue Produces Belief, and Vice Unbelief,” pp. 658-669 in Works (Edinburgh: Peter Brown and Thomas Nelson, 1829).

8 thoughts on “Can There be Theoria in Xanadu?

  1. Pingback: Can There be Theoria in Xanadu | Neoreactive

  2. Pingback: Can There be Theoria in Xanadu | Reaction Times

  3. The Left is obsessed with what it calls theory. The more the leftwing professoriate pushes theory, however, the less genuinely theoretical our departments become. What the Left calls theory is merely its own ideology, refracted into its narrow varieties, and pushed on students in the manner of a Koran. The triumph of theory is thus the equivalent of replacing actual education by totalitarian indoctrination.

  4. Theory is a tricky word. In the classical sense it means, as I said, seeing things in their true aspect. In modern empirical science it means a working hypothesis. In postmodern “critical theory” or “social theory” it means a the decoder ring for ideology. This resembles the classical sense, but the resemblance is superficial.

    • Theory comes from the same root as theater: It implies detached observation, as you have written; and it connotes the same homonoia. I believe that there is a verb, theasthein, which means “to contemplate something with the utmost selfless objectivity.”

    • The Greek fathers, as well as Augustine, defined theoria as contemplation; it was the primary source of theological insight for the early Church and is an intimation of the Beatific vision.

      You’re right: once scholarship was divorced from asceticism, discipline, and the cultivation of the virtues, it immediately began to degenerate. Modern scholarship is more subject to trends and fads than the fashion world, I find. And the esoteric vocabulary some academics use is worse than useless for describing things as they really are.

      • A small symptom of this is that academics now boast that they are “passionate” about their research. Of course they don’t really think about what the word passionate means, but it does suggest that they have forgotten the ancient idea that the soul must be stilled before the reason can operate.

  5. Pingback: This Week in Reaction (2015/12/06) | The Reactivity Place


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