Faculty & Staff

James R. Peters

Professor of Philosophy, Coordinator of Environmental Arts and Humanities
B.A., Northern Illinois University; M.A., Ph.D., Northwestern University

jpeters@sewanee.edu

My interest in philosophy began in my childhood when my parents bestowed on me a gift that I believe changed my life. In 1963 my parents left the dull and predictable suburbs of Chicago and moved out into the country. There I fell in love with the rural landscape and began my life-long passionate interest in the natural world. Out of my love of natural things emerged my love of asking fundamental questions. For better or for worse, in taking me into the country, my mother and father set my on the path of becoming a philosopher.

As I think of my childhood, I recall a fine book written by the philosopher Garreth Matthews called Philosophy and the Young Child which argues that children are naturally disposed, much more so than “well-adjusted” adults, to think philosophically. Matthews defends this thesis on the grounds that essential to the practice of philosophy is the spirit of wonder. In our society, much of our education and almost all of our popular culture values factual knowledge over child-like curiosity. By the time many of us grow up, Matthews argues, we have lost that natural ability we has as children to find wonder in ordinary things. Without this sense of wonder, thinks Matthews, philosophy becomes a spiritless, technical, and tedious enterprise. Based on my own life, I am convinced that Matthews is right. In my own life, it was during my explorations of the local woodlots and fields that I experienced my first sense of philosophical wonder. The birds I studied in particular seemed to me to exhibit a beauty I could find nowhere else in my life. Looking back, I would say that my encounters as a child watching the birds awakened in me a spiritual sense of the marvelous and unknown meaning of things. I wanted to understand all I could about birds because I was so drawn into their world. As I child, I was much more able than I am now to leave my duties and my tasks behind and enter into a world of mystery. There as a child, I experienced something which would in time become for me the most important principle of my life and the animating force in my philosophy: I was drawn into the mystery of birds because I felt in a child-like deep-down way, the presence of Grace. I did not, of course, fully understand it. I still do not.

From the age of five on, I was determined to become a professional ornithologist, and when I was a sophomore in college at age 18 uncertain of what I really wanted to do with my life, I started to re-think things and admit that I did not really know myself. No doubt it was the strain of such ignorance of myself that inspired me in my sophomore year, as a bird takes to the air, to take a class in philosophy. For me the turning point was when I attended a Northern Illinois University philosophy club showing of the movie, “Death in Venice”. During the discussion that followed, I can remember my thrill at finding other adults, most of them young, a few quite old, who were as perplexed by the mystery of things as was I. In several weeks, I went home and told my parents that I wanted to study philosophy. My father, a man of grace, congratulated me for pursuing what I loved. My mother, a woman of grace and motherly concern, hugged me, said that she would of course stand behind me, but had to ask me what I would do with a degree in philosophy. “Anything worth doing,” I said. Fortunately, even after 25 years of studying philosophy, I still believe in that answer.

I study philosophy because I think the love of wisdom is one of the greatest loves to experience in one’s life. For me, philosophy is Socratic: we seek to know ourselves because we believe that how we live deeply matters and yet we don’t really know. We pursue philosophy neither to get easy answers nor to enjoy the human vanity of saying there is no truth to be found. To be a philosopher is to love what we know we will never fully attain, at least not in this life given the limitations of our meager intellects. I believe that philosophy, the love of wisdom, instructs us on how to live well by helping us to examine and re-examine our loves. In my view, philosophical reasoning is not purely objective or dispassionate. Rather, philosophical thinking emerges out of our deepest longings and desires. Like Pascal, I believe that philosophical reason depends on the heart for its direction. On the relationship of philosophy and my own heart, I would say the following. First of all, I find in my own life that Boethius was right: Lady Philosophy calls us as honest human beings not to put too much stock in those things which moth and rust can destroy. Our desire for finding the truth leads us to look for a truth whose worth has no price, and, I would say, a truth whose grace and beauty we neither deserve nor can create. In my own life, my love for philosophy is not my highest love; if it ever truly endangered my love for my children, my wife, or my Lord Christ, I would, sadly, resolve to leave it behind. But so far in my life, I cannot imagine how that could happen. So I plod on, asking questions I know I cannot fully answer and giving lectures I know are never good enough. In my life, philosophy has helped me to live within my Socratic limits by seeing that ultimately only God’s wisdom is sufficient for guiding our mortal lives. I worry that in our society today where the worship of the GNP has become our state religion, we are to our own peril, losing our capacity to see the need for this Socratic wisdom.

I close with a story that illustrates my conception of how philosophy relates to life. Once a curious student in one of my classes asked me why anyone would become a philosopher, I answered that, in my opinion, normal, well-adjusted people do not become philosophers. My students found this amusing–or at least they pretended to–and I think they did for two reasons. First, they thought I was not joking–which I wasn’t–and, second, they wondered if in my case it might not be especially true. I was not joking when I gave this answer because I really believe that our cultural ideal of the independent, well-adjusted individual is actually one of the most dangerous myths of our secular society. I deeply believe that for a person to feel fully at home in our American world of material privilege and culturally emptiness is a sign of their being severely maladjusted. As regards the second reason, I think my students are right on, for it is certainly the case that the one pretty clear example I can cite as evidence for my theory about maladjusted philosophers is my own life. From the experiences of my own life here is how I understand the relationship of philosophy and human well-being. For me, the love of truth leads to an awareness of my need for the grace of Jesus Christ. I admit that perhaps other human beings are not so sorely in need of Jesus’s Grace as I am; I can only speak from personal experience that as a Christian egalitarian, I share the vision of life expressed in the title of one of Flannery O’Connor’s most masterful short stories: “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” I believe that there has in all of human history only been one exemption.
In conclusion, in my own life, the spirit of philosophy, the spirit of real love and yearning for the truth, does not arise in me during those moments when I think I own the world and control my own destiny. On the contrary, the desire to think deeply about what it all means, arises, at least in my own life, out of those uncanny experiences when I find both myself and the world I live in to be so strange and mysterious, that I am sure that I have truly mastered next to nothing. And yet I sense that we human creatures are not supposed to feel homeless ultimately. Of course, that we are capable of this experience, of feeling not at home in our everyday lives, may just be an accident of the cosmos—a result of the drama of mindless, accidental, brute forces. But I cannot help but think otherwise. That I cannot is, of course, a matter of faith, but it is a faith that is not unreasonable. And I have never met a person, let alone a philosopher, who did not live by some type of faith. In my own life, philosophy is a kind of love most suitable for those who are pilgrims on their way home.

Areas of Expertise

Ancient and Medieval Philosophy, Environmental Ethics, and Philosophical Theology