The new dean of the Templeton Honors College, Dr. Bryan Williams, gave a talk at Windows on the World on Friday, Oct. 6, about reading towards moral virtue. He began the lecture by asserting that young people — including college students — aren’t able to be fully virtuous. Agreeing with Aristotle, Williams cited many reasons for this defect in youth, some relating to brain development, but others relating to a young person’s role models, friends, moral imagination, and lack of life experience. Reading “tropologically,” that is, for moral insight, unfortunately cannot do anything to speed up the developmental processes of the brain. However, Williams argues that reading can help make up for a young person’s lack of life experience by providing “shortcuts to life experience” when readers “submit their minds to the immediacy of the story.”
Williams referenced a protestant German reformer, Philip Melanchthon, who recommends that all young adults should read Homer, calling “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” the “workshop of humanity.” Philip Melanchthon taught that reading Homer with attention to moral truths could actually help formulate virtue in a young person’s mind. Williams and Melanchthon argue that Homer “gives readers what they didn’t earn”; that is, life experience that they didn’t actually have to live. Williams extends this argument and suggests that, when reading any great book, readers and young people in particular can gain moral knowledge and grow in virtue by reading good books in a particular way, with an eye toward moral virtue. When a reader allows himself or herself to inhabit the mind of a good character, he or she becomes morally edified.
Williams acknowledged, however, this does not always happen when one reads. He asserts that readers need to take a “posture of humble receptivity” towards great texts to receive all the benefits of tropological reading. “This reading isn’t complete simply when you close the book,” Williams explains, “but when it changes you.” When a reader allows himself or herself to become friends with the characters in the story, and continues living life with them even when the book is closed, that is when real progress towards virtue takes place.