Res Symposium: The Mean Among Monsters
Throughout the year, Upper School teachers send emails to 7th-12th grade parents that begin with the subject line Res Symposium. Literally understood as conversation over drinks, the phrase encourages schole – restful learning – over a shared meal. Our hope is that these short notes from teachers will provide parents with rich questions and ideas to explore over the dinner table with family and friends.
In today’s blog post, we introduce a school-wide Res Symposium, based on “The Mean Among Monsters”, an award winning essay by Upper School Math Teacher Jonathan Stewart.
Background: Like school teachers everywhere, Mr. Stewart has his summers off. And like most of his colleagues at Veritas, summers off mean more time to read great books. In fact, to traverse these works better, he and his family have spent the past three summers at St. John’s College in Annapolis. There Mr. Stewart has been pursuing a masters in liberal arts at the college’s Graduate Institute, and his program of study focuses on reading and parsing primary texts that range from Shakespeare to Euclid.
As a Christian and as a math teacher, Mr. Stewart finds the nature of hypothetical thinking fundamental to higher thought. After all, he notes, the mark of an educated man is the ability to entertain an idea without necessarily accepting the idea – a definition of ‘education’ that he attributes to Aristotle. In turn, Mr. Stewart has a particular fondness for Geometry, a subject that forces students to grant particular assumptions and then see where those assumptions lead. Whether engaging with fellow believers or unbelievers, he finds dialogue unmanageable without a clear, honest admission of one’s own assumptions.
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Mr. Stewart’s essay is exploratory in nature, grappling with how every individual virtue sits between vices of differing perniciousness. The essay begins with Mr. Stewart addressing the virtues of liberality* and magnanimity, and he proceeds to debate (with himself mainly) whether he agrees with Aristotle’s classifications. The nature of the essay is not propositional or declarative but questioning in tone – an attempt to get a better handle on Book II of Aristotle’s Ethics, per the constraints of the assignment that led to the essay.
*Liberality is generosity with one’s money and material possessions. As used here, it is related to ‘hospitality’ and ‘charity,’ not to any political ideology.
The questions the “The Mean Among Monsters” essay raises are important, and we invite you and your students to engage with us in exploring them. For your own Res Symposium, please consider the following questions when reading the essay:
1) Liberality’s vices are stinginess and prodigality. Do you agree with Aristotle that the vice of stinginess is worse? They’re both bad, of course, but try comparing them.
2) Try extending the idea of extremes/vices to the three distinct Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love. What two extremes does love have? Faith? Hope?
3) At the end of the essay you’ll note that the elders of Troy give pointed advice to King Priam concerning Helen – advice that Aristotle relates to guarding yourself against pleasure. Where in scripture do we see similar warnings?