George Steiner is «a secular Jew […] on reading terms with the major Christian theologian and writers […]. As a Jew he combines knowledge of things Jewish with an unusual sensitivity to things Christian.»
George Steiner’s work can be considered a long soliloquy, sometimes criticized for its excessive assertiveness, obsessivity and rhetoricity. In it, style arguably compensates for argumentative lack. However, the overwhelming amount of critical response to it unambiguously expresses its dialogical potential beyond mere ephemeral polemics. Therefore, nowadays no sound approach to his thinking can omit the relevance of a dialogical principle at work in his writings. Such a principle involves three different layers (religious, cultural and literary) which are always invoked by Steiner, and whose interaction he always strongly avows for.
First of all, religion is a constant concern throughout Steiner’s career. Directly or implicitly, he continuously interrogates himself and Western civilization about the possibility of any ethic or aesthetic proposal of meaningful existence and experience (including therefore both life and art) after the Shoah. In his theory or redefinition of culture, a particular idea is obsessively repeated:
It will not, I believe, be possible for European culture to regain its inward energies, its self-respect, so long as Christendom is not made answerable to its own seminal role in the preparation of the Shoah (the Holocaust); so long as it does not hold itself to account for its cant and impotence when European history stood at midnight. In one perspective, such questions are of another dimension than those which pertain to literacy. In another, they are inseparable.
Such a declaration needs not be read as an accusation, but rather as an injunction or a cry for the necessity of dialogue, as the choice of the word «answerable» instead of responsible suggests.
I therefore intend to interpret Steiner’s redefinition of culture as the expression of a want of dialogue and to observe how he himself tries to face the challenge he sets on European culture in his conception of literary language. To him, words and texts are inhabited and manifest “presences”. Yet he insists on denying any of the interpretative theories we can associate with the linguistic turn of the XXth century the ability to account for those inherent presences. Only a consideration of underlying religious forms of textuality within our approach to the text can provide us with the tools to detect those presences. Particularly, within the Western world, Steiner posits that our interpretative methods are still determined by Jewish and Christian exegetical practices. While differing in their premises and subsequent approach to the notion of presence, both traditions are now, especially since the Shoah, faced with the hermeneutic dilemma.
According to Steiner, when apprehending literary meaning, during the process of reading, both the Judaic presumption of presence in which a living dialogue can take place and a Christian predisposition towards an encounter with a real presence cohabit. The dialogical principle therefore becomes action and practice. Steiner’s own works of literary criticism display a practical translation of this theoretical principle. In Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, e.g., the subtitle voices the revindication of a particular genre and method (“An Essay in the Old Criticism”) while a “dialogue in the living presence” of the author is announced by the title. This can be interpreted, within Steiner’s terminology, as a Judaic rooted approach. Nevertheless, throughout most of the text of his first major works, Steiner’s focus is set more on the relationship between the author and his characters than on the author himself. Moreover, it is through this relationship that the author’s presence emerges and is eventually communicated. On the other hand, in Antigones Steiner’s perspective shifts towards the mythical character to whom Steiner attributes a real presence in an analogically Christian sacramental sense, beyond the unending and unachieved series of rewritings and reinterpretations it keeps giving birth to. Yet, once again, it is not the character in herself which constitutes the object of the book, but its reinvention or recreation through the work of authors, philosophers, translators and critics. Thus, within the interpersonal process by which a mythical figure comes to exist as a semantic relationship, we glimpse something like a synthesis of Judaic and Catholic textualities at work.
My assumption is that such dialogue is possible because Steiner’s perspective is profoundly personalist. One could nevertheless asks why he somehow needs or feels compelled to turn to Christian concepts at a certain stage of his career. He justifies it himself by his sense of a “blind zone” or limit, deriving from the iconoclasm and legalist rationalism that characterize the work of Jewish scholars in the XXth century. As he indicates, all the protagonists of the Sprachkrise (Kraus, Chomsky, Wittgenstein, Jakobson, Derrida) «have been Jews or of Jewish origins.» Together with Freud, Marx and Lévi-Strauss, «modern Judaism has mutinied against its patriarchal-paternalistic legacy of textual prepotence» and thus denied its identity as People of the Book. Once the existence of God, of beginnings and the equations between name and substance are put in question, any text loses its potential to be a “dialogue in the living presence” and does not carry any intentionality. The very process of meaning, namely that by which meaning generates meaning, is undermined. Precisely in order to restore meaning to meaning Steiner summons Christianity through the borrowing of the real presence concept.
As readers we thus face two Steiners: a theoretician of culture who insists on pointing at an apparently unsolvable problem at the roots of our contemporary “post-culture” (a problem that excludes all “final” solutions but constantly confesses its need to be unfolded in constructive dialogue) whereas, on the other hand, his practice of literary criticism faces it directly to the extent of integrating it into his method. The encounter with meaning thus necessarily implies an encounter with the other, since it is through the Christian interface of the real presence that the verb “to be” can be re-attributed some sort of content. Literary reception and experience are thus granted back characteristics such as an apprehension of presence, a living in the presence as dialogical existence, which properly belong to the field of religion and, originally, to Biblical Judaism (the historical common trunk of both Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism).
Steiner’s transdisciplinary prose enacts a deep interreligious dialogue of which his persona becomes the stage. A stage that metonymically represents our culture, within which a religious polyphony takes place. Instead of deconstruction, what we hear at work in his apparently monological prose is a dramatic and agonic attempt at reconstruction of what should properly be called a Judeo-Christian approach to meaning. No doubt that read in this way, Steiner’s work constitutes a precious contribution to the dialogical and transdisciplinary humanistic vision of culture avowed by Pope Francis in Veritatis Gaudium. So be it, for the «love for truth» (Evangelii Gaudium, 250).
 R. P. Carroll: «Toward a Grammar of Creation: On Steiner the Theologian» in Scott, Nathan Jr. and R. A. Sharp (eds.), Reading George Steiner, Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1994, pp. 267-269.
 .See T. Todorov, Mikahïl Bakhtine. Le principe dialogique. Paris: Seuil, 1981.
 See the 1996 preface to No Passion Spent Essays 1978-1996. London: Faber and Faber, 1996
 G. Steiner. Real Presences. Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1989, pp. 41-44: «In Judaism, unending commentary and commentary upon commentary are elemental. Talmudic exegesis exfoliates into uninterrupted study of and commentary on the Talmud. […] Hermeneutic unendingness and survival in exile are, I believe, kindred. […]This reading without end represents the foremost guarantee of Jewish identity. […] The rabbinic answer to the dilemma of the unending commentary is one of moral action and enlightened conduct. […] Note the radical difference between Catholic and Judaic textuality. There is no temporal singularity, no enigma of historicity […] in the Judaic sense of the Creation and of the Mosaic reception and transmission of the Law. There is a strict, utterly mysterious temporality in the coming and ministry of Christ. […] To achieve finalities of meaning one must punctuate (the very term is that of the ‘full stop’).»
 G. Steiner: «The Long Life of Metaphor» Encounter, February 1987, pp. 55-61: «In Christian theology, the question as to whether there is a mode of human language in which to speak adequately of God is a classical and perennial motif. […] In Judaism, this problem of linguistic epistemology or hermeneutic theology, has not been prominent. Indeed, the very notion of “theology”, in the post-Pauline, post Johannine, and post Augustinian sense, has no real counterpart in Jewish religious feeling. The most authentic and lasting strength in Jewish sensibility is not a reflection or metaphysical discourse on the nature and attributes of God, but rather a “living in His presence”. From Abraham onward, there has been a covenant of dialogue between the believing Jew and God. In this dialogue, the problem of language does not really obtrude. As, perhaps, in no other faith, the God of Abraham and Moses, and those whom He has chosen to speak to, individually and as a community, share the same language. We can almost define the language-world of Judaism in relation to God as one of idiomatic affinity. One of the consequences of the Shoah (the Holocaust) is to have transported (violently, irreparably) into Judaism, both religious and secular, the hermeneutic dilemma.»
 G. Steiner. Real Presences, op. cit., pp. 214-215: «This essay argues a wager on transcendence. It argues that there is in the art-act and its reception, that there is in the experience of meaningful form, a presumption of presence. […] These convictions are, as current linguistic philosophy puts it […] “verification transcendent”. […] There is a sense in which no human discourse, however analytic, can make final sense of sense itself. But my wager must be made more specific. I am wagering, both in a Cartesian and a Pascalian vein, on the informing pressure of a real presence in the semantic markers which generate Oedipus the King or Madame Bovary.»
 See G. Steiner, «A Responsion», in Scott, Nathan Jr. and R. A. Sharp, op. cit., pp. 280-281: «the legacy of iconoclasm, of juridical rationalism in Judaism inhibits an idiom that endeavours to come nearer the transcendent possibility, the otherness of informing unreason in the arts. In trying to hammer out some perception, however rudimentary, into the paradoxes of real presence as we meet with them in the aesthetic, I found myself resorting to the pulse of metaphor, to the analytics of mystery in the Augustinian, Thomist, and Pascalian semantics and aura.»
Christophe Herzog is a PhD Student in Contemporary Humanism at Lumsa University (curriculum Literature). Paper presented at the Conference “Dialogo a tutto campo” organised by the Catholic Forum Roma.
Open classroom climate. Dialogue as a tool for the development of citizenship skills (Francesca Fioretti)
Schools and classrooms are “communities of practice” (Torney-Purta et al., 2007), where students can experience and practice democracy (Flanagan, 2013; Nieuwelink et al., 2016; Maurissen et al., 2018), and where they gain participatory skills in debates and collaborative decision-making processes (Godfrey et al., 2014). In this scenario, words become tools for knowledge acquisition and they represent a bridge of shared meanings, through which it is possible to act both on the level of knowledge’s active co-construction by students and on the level of citizenship education (Ferrero, 2021).
Dialogic pedagogies emphasize the word’s role as a conduit for relationships and cultural transmission. It has been shown how the human unfolding is founded on possession of language as a means of participation in democratic life, because the individual realizes himself only if he can dialogue with others (Granata, 2018). The ability to communicate is closely linked to the ability to listen: in particular, one of the conditions for dialogue to take place is active listening, that requires the overcoming of an egocentric perspective and an emotional neutrality to the listener, as his positive or negative emotions may alter communication’s interpretation (Merritt, 2021). Through such elements, what Buber (1993) calls “authentic dialogue” is realized, i.e. the form of dialogue where each participant understands the others in their uniqueness and, in this way, creates a living reciprocity (Buber, 1993) and a state of intersubjectivity (Rommetveit, 1985; Wells, 2006).
Thus, dialogue is configured as a tool for the development of citizenship skills and democratic values in the learning environment, because it allows to create a classroom climate characterized by free and respectful sharing of opinions among students and teacher (Scheerens, 2009; Scheerens, 2011; Torney-Purta and Amadeo, 2011; Torney-Purta and Barber, 2011; Reichert et al., 2018). Specifically, open classroom climate could be defined as the atmosphere in the classroom (Scheerens, 2016) and it represents the major element for the development of critical consciousness, since it permits students to improve the awareness of themselves as active members of a civil society (Godfrey and Grayman, 2014). A relevant body of research demonstrates how open classroom climate, measured by students’ individual perceptions, enables them to improve «a sense of themselves as members of a political community and as effective civic actors in that community, developing a sense of efficacy because proximate authorities listen and pay attention to them» (Flanagan et al., 2007, p. 423).
This aspect has been investigated in every civic and citizenship education’s survey conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) from 1971 to 2016. In these studies, a positive correlation between an open classroom climate and students’ civic knowledge outcomes has been established (Campbell, 2008; Schulz et al., 2010; Schulz et al., 2016). The 2016 International Civic and Citizenship Education Study (ICCS) survey confirms how students’ perceptions of openness to dialogue at school have a direct impact both on citizenship skills and knowledge and on the willingness to engage in public activities. Data indicate a positive perception of a supportive climate to discussion within schools, with average values across the 24 participating countries in the ICCS 2016 study between 44% and 85% (Schulz et al., 2016) for the various aspects examined in the student questionnaire.
In accordance with these studies, the open and democratic classroom climate coincides especially with the opportunity to freely debate contentious issues in class, accepting others’ different viewpoints. In this way, it is possible to act on the perception of the student who feels he can express his thoughts in a climate of mutual respect and active listening, even in the presence of an asymmetrical relationship such as the one with the teacher. Thus, teachers, through the systematic use of classroom debate, can create chances for conversation, and support students’ engagement and motivation in the learning process (Maurissen et al., 2018). Consequently, the school becomes the primary environment where the students feel to be effective members of a community and develop a civic identity. Attention must be paid to the relational dimension not only because it contributes to the subject’s well-being, but also because it holds the learning potential that must be identified and recognized (Castoldi, 2011).
Buber, M. (1993). Il principio dialogico e altri saggi. San Paolo.
Campbell, D. E. (2008). Voice in the classroom: How an open classroom climate fosters political engagement among adolescents. Political behavior, 30(4), 437-454.
Castoldi, M. (2011). Progettare per competenze. Percorsi e strumenti. Carrocci.
Ferrero, V. (2021). Prender parola. Il dialogo come strumento educativo e l’insegnante come facilitatore per costruire una classe-comunità inclusiva. Riflessioni a partire dalle pedagogie della parola e del dialogo e dalla Philosophy for Children. Annali online della Didattica e della Formazione Docente, 13(22), 88-103.
Flanagan, C. A. (2013). Teenage citizens. In Teenage Citizens. Harvard University Press.
Flanagan, C. A., Cumsille, P., Gill, S., & Gallay, L. S. (2007). School and community climates and civic commitments: Patterns for ethnic minority and majority students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99(2), 421–431.
Godfrey, E. B., & Grayman, J. K. (2014). Teaching citizens: The role of open classroom climate in fostering critical consciousness among youth. Journal of youth and adolescence, 43(11), 1801-1817.
Granata, A. (2018). La ricerca dell’altro. Prospettive di pedagogia interculturale. Carrocci.
Maurissen, L., Claes, E., & Barber, C. (2018). Deliberation in citizenship education: How the school context contributes to the development of an open classroom climate. Social Psychology of Education, 21(4), 951-972.
Merritt, M. R. (2021). Active Listening in the Diverse Roles of International School Leaders. IMCC Journal of Science, 1(2), 115-130.
Nieuwelink, H., Dekker, P., Geijsel, F., & ten Dam, G. (2016). “Democracy always comes first”: Adolescents’ views on decision-making in everyday life and political democracy. Journal of Youth Studies, 19(7), 990-1006.
Reichert, F., Chen, J., & Torney-Purta, J. (2018). Profiles of adolescents’ perceptions of democratic classroom climate and students’ influence: The effect of school and community contexts. Journal of youth and adolescence, 47(6), 1279-1298.
Rommetveit, R. (1985). Language acquisition as increasing linguistic structuring of experience and symbolic behavior control. In J. V. Wertsch (Ed.), Culture, communication, and cognition: Vygotskian perspectives (pp. 183-204). Cambridge University Press.
Schulz, W., Ainley, J., Fraillon, J., Kerr, D., & Losito, B. (2010). ICCS 2009 International Report: Civic Knowledge, Attitudes, and Engagement among Lower-Secondary School Students in 38 Countries. International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievemen. Herengracht 487, Amsterdam, 1017 BT, The Netherlands.
Schulz, W., Ainley, J., Fraillon, J., Losito, B., Agrusti, G. (2016). IEA International Civic and Citizenship Education Study 2016 Assessment Framework. Amsterdam: IEA.
Scheerens, J. (Ed.). (2009). Informal learning of active citizenship at school: An international comparative study in seven European countries (Vol. 14). Springer Science & Business Media.
Scheerens, J. (2011). Indicators on informal learning for active citizenship at school. Educational assessment, evaluation and accountability, 23(3), 201-222.
Scheerens, J. (2016). Educational effectiveness and ineffectiveness. A critical review of the Knowledge Base. Springer.
Torney-Purta, J., Barber, C. H., & Wilkenfeld, B. (2007). Latino adolescents’ civic development in the United States: Research results from the IEA Civic Education Study. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 36(2), 111–125.
Torney-Purta, J., & Amadeo, J.-A. (2011). Participatory niches for emergent citizenship in early adolescence: an international perspective. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 633(1), 180–200.
Wells, G., & Arauz, R. M. (2006). Dialogue in the classroom. The journal of the learning sciences, 15(3), 379–428.
 Belgium (Flemish), Bulgaria, Chile, Chinese Taipei, Colombia, Croatia, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Estonia, Finland, Hong Kong SAR, Italy, Korea, Republic of Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Mexico, Netherlands, North Rhine-Westphalia (Germany), Norway, Peru, Russian Federation, Slovenia, Sweden.
 Some of these aspects are teachers’ encouragement of students to develop and express their own opinions, and teachers’ tendency to present different views on the topics.
Francesca Fioretti is a PhD Student in Contemporary Humanism at Lumsa University (curriculum Education).
Dialogue is the way that mature humanity uses as a tool to solve its problems in almost all areas.
In order not to be misleading, dialogue must have its own rules; actually, it is necessary that the parties assume mutual respect for human dignity, freedom of expression, and respect for the environment as a fundamental criterion.
In this sense, interreligious dialogue is important because it is based on intentions of respect for the whole of creation.
Interreligious dialogue is part of the evangelizing mission of the Church and is intended as a method and means for mutual knowledge and enrichment. The real common element of religions is not the mystical experience but the salvific function. Hence the need for dialogue in order to know and welcome the salvific values that emerge in the various religious experiences.
However, Carlo Molari, theologist of interreligious dialogue, recommends to overcome the possible temptation to elaborate a theology of religions before engaging in dialogue within them. On the other hand, such a dialogue always requires a theology, which disposes to change and solicits conversion. The commitment to dialogue with other religions already implies in itself that the Church is exposed to challenges.
I remind the periodic interreligious meeting for peace which has been being held in Assisi since 1986, promoted by Pope John Paul II, as a clear manifestation of a trend in the Catholic Church of openness towards interreligious dialogue for peace and harmony among religions.
I shortly recall the Buddhist, Christian-Jewish and Islamic concepts of creation and environment and the relationship between human being and nature, being the care of the environment a common ground among those religions.
Buddhism is a didactic that deals with learning the way that leads to liberation from suffering. Buddhism represents the efforts of the whole of humanity to follow the original teaching regarding the path of liberation.
We can summarize that teaching in the following steps:
1) Do no harm;
2) Be benevolent, welcoming towards all beings;
3) Meditate deeply to get to know the depths of your heart;
4) Do not make your desire the yardstick of your choices, placing instead at the first place the adherence to the path of liberation from suffering, from human misery, which is a way of union with all human beings, with all creation.
In Buddhism, each component of the environment in which we live is called “the life I live”. Therefore, any behavior that is an aggression towards the environment, or towards my life understood in a broader sense, is an inconceivable behavior because it is equivalent to an action of self-harm from the point of view of the construction of the quality of life and, at the same time, an aggression against all other beings.
Responsibility towards creation is also fundamental within the Christian-Jewish vision of life; actually, at the second chapter of the book of Genesis we read: “The Lord God took man and put him in the garden of Eden to keep and cultivate it” (Gen 2:15). These two verbs are very significant, to solemnly codify the duty of safeguarding creation, providing a real biblical foundation of ecology and ecological culture and behavior. The story of creation continues with the breaking of harmony within man, woman and God relationship which also leads to disharmony between human beings and nature.
Christianity takes up and strengthens the messianic hope of either anthropological and ecological restoration, as a “new beginning” within human history via the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, called the “new Adam”, precisely to indicate all the innovative power of His presence in history, capable of a re-foundation of the history on Earth, including a consequent ecological restoration.
Recently, Pope Francis has drawn two encyclicals that actualize the message of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ in the sense just illustrated.
In the vision of Islam, God has given full trust to the human being by assigning the mission of taking care of humanity as well as of other creatures.
Islamic law includes the rules basing the relationship between human beings and the environment among the fundamental rights and duties. It obliges to save the environment and share it with others, as well as it guarantees everyone the right to stay in a clean and beautiful area where life might be possible in peace and dignity. This is a common feature with the biblical Old Testament and therefore with the Christian-Jewish vision.
In such a context, the Catholic Universities, as repositories of culture embedded in a religious background, may play a critical role in growing a more responsible attitude and ecological expertise for a healthier planet and more peaceful and fairer society. Interreligious dialogue should be a focus for its potential role in deepening, extending and strengthening the impact on the global society.
Molari C., Teologia del pluralismo religioso, Pazzini Editore, Ravenna 2013
Pope Francis, Laudato Si’(encyclical), 2015
Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti (encyclical), 2020
Sacred text Buddism: Buddhist canon
Sacred text Judaism: Hebrew Bible
Sacred text Christianity: Christian Bible
Sacred text Islam: Quran
Cecilia Sabato is a PhD Student in Contemporary Humanism at Lumsa University (curriculum Education).
Pope Francis’ encyclical “Fratelli tutti” proposes the so-called parable of the Good Samaritan as the paradigm of a fraternity understood as a social friendship (see Fratelli tutti, n. 56-86). This proposal is of interest to the moral philosopher for at least a couple of reasons.
The first reason is that the Samaritan’s attitude is presented as a moral example which is not only valid for Christians, but for everyone, regardless of their religious beliefs. The second reason is that that attitude is considered valid, not only in the private sphere of interpersonal relationships, but also as a paradigm of a new form of citizenship.
These statements are not obvious at all. The Samaritan’s attitude is traditionally considered the emblem of “supererogation”. This is a technical term which indicates those actions and attitudes which, while being morally good, are however not strictly required. This area of actions and attitudes has long been considered beyond ethics and beyond the call of duty which is typical of modern citizenship.
- The notion of Supererogation
The history of the concept of supererogation has its origins precisely in the parable of the Good Samaritan and, in particular, in the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Christian Bible dating back to the 4th century. In the instructions the Samaritan gives the innkeeper so that he takes care, in his absence, of the unfortunate pilgrim, the Vulgata reads: “Curam illius habe, et, quodcumque supererogaveris, ego, cum rediero, reddam tibi” (Lk 10:35). The Latin verb “supererogaveris” is translated, in the current versions of the biblical text, by the periphrasis “whatever more you spend”. Supererogation has therefore to do with a “surplus” and, in particular, with an additional cost, an extra expense. This is why the attitude of the Samaritan has traditionally become the emblem of supererogation.
Starting from the Gospel, the Fathers of the Church have introduced the term into the technical language of theology, referring it to actions recommended by spiritual tradition, but contrary to natural inclinations, such as fast and chastity. But it is only with Thomas Aquinas that the term became relevant. According to Aquinas, a good moral action can be either commanded or advised. That is, it can be the object of either an obligation (the sphere of “praecepta”) or a recommendation (the sphere of “consilia”, such as chastity, poverty, obedience). This second category includes supererogatory actions, i.e. actions which, while being morally positive, are beyond the call of duty. According to Aquinas, counsels are morally superior to commandments. If the latter concern what is good, the former concern a better good. Aquinas’ perspective on supererogation became canonical, remaining substantially unchanged for a few centuries, at least until Luther and the other Reformers. In their eyes, supererogatory actions took the shape of human claims to obtain salvation thanks to one’s own merits.
In the following centuries, the notion of supererogation lost its relevance and centrality, both in theology and philosophy, at least until 1958, when the British philosopher James Urmson published his short essay Saints and Heroes. Urmson’s thesis goes as follows: moral philosophy has traditionally disregarded two types of actions, the saintly and the heroic ones. Such actions would not fall in the commonly accepted classification, according to which moral actions would be divided into (1) morally right obligatory actions, (2) morally wrong prohibited actions, (3) morally neutral permitted actions. Saintly and heroic actions do not fit in this classification as long as they are morally good actions which are not obligatory, not due nor demandable. More precisely, although they may be perceived as mandatory from a first person perspective (i.e. by the subject at the moment of deliberation), they are not so from a third person perspective (i.e. from the point of view of an external observer). According to Urmson, compared to the “basic moral duties”, those actions would represent “the higher flights of morality”. Following Urmson’s pioneering article, a huge debate has opened up in Anglo-Saxon moral philosophy about the concept of supererogation: about its definition, about the taxonomy of supererogatory actions and attitudes, about the paradoxes inherent in the notion.
What is interesting for us is that the encyclical “Fratelli tutti” places supererogatory attitudes and acts – of which the Good Samaritan is a moral example – as a paradigm not only of ethics, but of a new form of citizenship. What can the moral philosopher say about this claim?
- Rethinking the notion of duty
As I have tried to show elsewhere, taking the notion of supererogation seriously requires to rethink the notion of duty. In particular, I think it is necessary to distinguish at least three different levels of the experience of duty.
A first experience of duty is situated at a legal level: my duty corresponds either to the respect of the right of another person or to what is established by a law. This kind of duty is intended to protect freedom and human rights, which are supposed to be an original human feature, as the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights puts it, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” (article 1). By setting boundaries and limitations, legal duties aim at protecting everybody’s original freedom and rights.
A second experience of duty is situated at an ethical level. A form of responsibility comes up at each encounter between humans. Not only I am responsible for my own actions (which I might be asked to justify), but I am someway responsible for the other’s life and destiny. An implicit call for love is present in each human encounter and I have to respond as suitably as possible to this call.
A third experience of duty is situated at an anthropological level. At this level, the idea according to which all human beings are born free is an abstraction. Humans are born able to be free, but they actually need to become free. Freedom has its own genealogy and conditions, and love is one of these conditions. Not only I need to be free in order to love someone, but I also need to receive and give love in order to become free. Only if I act out of love – love for myself and for others – I can truly be free.
Supererogation is beyond the call of duty at a legal level, i.e. beyond what the moral agent might be required to do by either a law or the respect of a third person’s rights. At this level, no one has the right to bother me by asking me to love them (i.e. to forgive, to be generous, to give my life for someone…).
But supererogation is not beyond the call of duty at an ethical level: I have to respond as suitably as I can to the call for love of my neighbour, since both their and my destiny depends on my response. This is what Jaspers called a “metaphysical” responsibility, based on an original solidarity among humans.
Supererogation is not beyond the call of duty on an anthropological level either. At this level, duty is what I actually need in order to become free, to actually become a subject. Something is due to the extent that it is a condition of my subjectivity and liberty. I become subject by freely and suitably responding to someone who in some way bothers me by asking me for love.
According to a very traditional view, supererogation is beyond the call of duty and (therefore) beyond ethics. The implicit presupposition of this view is that duty has in itself a legal shape: it corresponds to the respect of a third person’s right or to what is established by a law. But we need to enlarge our understanding of duty, by seeing it also as a necessary condition of possibility (of freedom, of subjectivity, of humanity…). Being one of these conditions of possibility, supererogation exceeds the mere legal understanding of duty, but not duty itself. It therefore becomes in all respects, an ethical phenomenon.
In other words: supererogation can be considered as a “maximum” if compared to the “minimum” which cannot and must not be missing – i.e. the area of what is demanded either by a law or by the respect of a third person’s rights. Since it is one of the conditions of freedom and subjectivity, this “maximum” is nevertheless someway “necessary” – the liberal State needs citizens who are truly free human subjects.
By contributing to create truly human and free subjects, the supererogatory attitude of the Good Samaritan – a fraternity understood as a social friendship – fulfils those premises on which the liberal State lives without being able to guarantee them by itself. With good reason, it can be thus considered an ethical phenomenon and the core of a new form of citizenship.
 Lk 10:25-37.
 See. D. Heyd, Supererogation. Its Status in Ethical Theory, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1982, part 1 (The view of some major ethical theories); J. Janiaud, Au-delà du devoir. L’acte surérogatoire, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, Rennes 2007, ch. III (Petit parcours historique).
 See. D. Dentsoras, The Birth of Supererogation, «Epoché. A Journal for the History of Philosophy», Vol. 18, Issue 2, 2014, pp. 351-372.
 See. D. Witschen, Zur Bestimmung supererogatorischer Handlungen: der Beitrag des Thomas von Aquin, «Freiburger Zeitschrift für Philosophie und Theologie», 1-3, 51 (2004), pp. 27-40.
 See M. Konrad, Precetti e consigli: studi sull’etica di san Tommaso d’Aquino a confronto con Lutero e Kant, Lateran University Press, Roma 2005, pp. 119-140.
 See J.O. Urmson, Saints and Heroes (1958), in J. Feinberg (ed.), Moral Concepts, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1969, pp. 60-73.
 See A. Archer, Supererogation, «Philosophy Compass», Vol. 13, Issue 3 (March 2018); C. Cowley, Introduction: The Agents, Acts and Attitudes of Supererogation, in Id. (ed), Supererogation, (Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement, Volume 77 – October 2015), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2015, pp. 1-23; D. Heyd, Supererogation, in E.N. Zalta (ed), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Spring 2016 Edition (https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2016/entries/supererogation).
 See S. Biancu, Il massimo necessario. L’etica alla prova dell’amore, Mimesis, Milano 2020; Id., Héros et saints : un autre (trans)humanisme, «Transversalités», 153, 2020, pp. 25-39.
 See E. Levinas, Totalité et Infini, Nijhoff, La Haye 1961; B. Waldenfelds, Topographie des Fremden. Studien zur Phänomenologie des Fremden 1, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt a.M. 1997; Id., Bruchlinien der Erfahrung, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt a.M. 2002.
 See J.-M. Ferry, Les Grammaires de l’intelligence, Cerf, Paris, 2004, p. 201.
 See K. Jaspers, Die Schuldfrage. Ein Beitrag zur deutschen Frage, Artemis, Zürich 1946, p. 11.
 See E.-W. Böckenförde, Die Entstehung des Staates als Vorgang der Säkularisation , in Id., Recht, Staat, Freiheit. Studien zur Rechtsphilosophie, Staatstheorie und Verfassungsgeschichte, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt a.M. 2006, pp. 92-114: 112 («Der freiheitliche, säkularisierte Staat lebt von Voraussetzungen, die er selbst nicht garantieren kann»).
Originally published on Educa. International Catholic Journal of Education. Download here this article.
The Encyclical Fratelli tutti is rich in suggestions. The text works on a “rhizomatic” basis, that corresponds to its inspiring principles, i.e. fraternity and social friendship. The ultimate goal of these principles is extending to all human beings the grace of a bond that projects the light of Salvation on human history. Pope Francis tells us that it’s only by going beyond genos and blood ties that we will be able to open doors to the Christian revolution. Doors will also open up to a form of paternity and maternity that engages all men of good will in the quest for justice and in the safeguard of creation. Blood and cultural ties are just the tools through which individuals and groups contribute to the species survival. Nonetheless, they do not exhaust the human “generating power” and, above all, they can’t be put forward as the bedrock of the Church, a spiritual community that lives inside history, precisely to guide it and also to witness that history itself will be ultimately overpassed.
Nevertheless, fraternity can be the new world frontier only if we start from the awareness that humanity is going through some hard times and if we are able to compare present and past. It is clear that every age had their difficulties. But the current period is characterized exactly by the refusal to look at models from the past, as it was always done before, for thousands of years. Our age rejects what a great Catholic historian, Henri-Irenée Marrou, called the “sadness” of the job of the historian, facing all the time human weaknesses and miseries. Globalization has masked identities that close off to defend what they are without understanding how and why they are that way. It makes many peoples captive of dictators and adventurers. It generates some absurd forms of inequality and injustice.
Against a naive use of the idea of fraternity, typical of simplistic revolutionary ideologies; and against an unscrupulous, phony use of democracy, the fraternity the Encyclical puts forth is founded on the historical consciousness that, not only religions, but also humanity itself, are at risk. Besides, those who seek fraternity are exactly the people who are not “naturally” siblings and know they are not. So, fraternity is a civil virtue that requires maturity and awareness, especially from those who have the possibility to judge and act without depending on despair. The practice of fraternity is a paramount challenge for the rich ones and the wise ones. A strong historical consciousness of personal and collective experience is the indispensable premise of a staunch practice of fraternity. Historical knowledge of the past teaches us that fraternity is always difficult, all the more so if we want to extend it to humankind. But historical consciousness suggests to us that the past will not influence the future, unless we allow it to last. Past and future are projections of men on time. They exist because they are filled with meanings that men share. Historians document the past and build up historical knowledge, but historical knowledge rises when people head to the future in light of a faith.
Originally published on Educa. International Catholic Journal of Education. Read here the rest of this article.
Peter Howard, the Director of the Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry (IRCI) at the Australian Catholic University, gives a seminar on “Flourishing and Humanists in Renaissance Florence”. Click on the image to watch the video.
Social Friendship during the Time of Social Distancing
September 6th-10th, 2021
(to watch the videos click on the title of each conference)
- 6 September : Luca VALERA (PUC), Distance and Presence in a Technological Environment
- 7 September : Matteo RIZZOLLI (Università Lumsa), Covid-19 and Social Preferences
- 8 September : Emmanuel FALQUE (ICP), Fraternity and Solitude
- 9 September : Stephanie COLLINS (ACU), Loneliness and Obligation
- 10 September : Alexandre PALMA (UCP), Humanity and Spatiality
For more than a year now, we have been witnessing the biggest limitation of fundamental freedoms since the Second World War, at least in Europe and in many democratic countries. Limitations on social life, on traveling, on worship have become daily life for us. An unprecedented limitation of freedoms (in the plural) urges us to question ourselves about the nature of freedom (in the singular): what does it mean to be free?
- The Ideal and the Concept of Freedom
When you lose something, you often learn the hard way how important it was what you had taken for granted. Today, in the midst of a long health emergency, being confined and limited in many ways, we perceive how essential freedom is. At the same time, we find it hard to say what is this freedom that we miss so much. The ideal of freedom is clear: we all agree on how important freedom is. But the concept of freedom is complex and someway mysterious: it is not easy to say what freedom really is.
Freedom is certainly a set of simple things: gathering with family and friends, traveling, going to the cinema or to an art exhibition, having a coffee sitting at a bar table, eating a pizza with friends, moving around, taking a walk under the stars in the middle of the night, not being forced to wear a mask. We understand all this very well: it is what we miss. But we are aware that freedom is not just that.
To try to understand what freedom is, let’s start with a distinction that has become a classic: the distinction between negative and positive freedom. It is a distinction already proposed by Immanuel Kant, but which has become a classic after the famous inaugural lecture on “Two Concepts of Liberty” that sir Isaiah Berlin gave at Oxford University in 1958.
- Negative and Positive Freedom
Negative freedom is the mere absence of external limits or interference. It is therefore a freedom that has to do with society and which concerns the action of the agent. It corresponds to what is lawful and allowed. Negative freedom – to which Berlin gives a preference in the political sphere – can be easily understood in the plural (in the sense of the fundamental freedoms). As the absence of external constraints, negative freedom is now vastly more limited than it was before the pandemic.
Instead, positive freedom can be understood in terms of self-control and self-determination. It concerns the will of the agent and it corresponds to autonomy, in the sense of the power of the subject to give norms to themselves.
Positive freedom is complex. It is certainly to be understood as free will, that is, the ability to choose between different options. In this sense, it is an innate capacity of the human being. This capacity is very much discussed today in the debate on determinism raised by the neurosciences. For now, there is no philosophical or scientific evidence that allows us to deny this fundamental human ability. In the absence of this evidence, I firmly believe that we must assume this capacity exists. Especially in that the possibility of moral, legal and political responsibility is based on this same capacity.
- Love and then do what you want
But positive freedom is not just free will, that is, the formal and innate possibility of choosing between different options, of doing what you want. Positive freedom is also an ability of autonomy which develops over time. It is not the mere possibility for the agent to do what they want, but it is the ability for the subject to truly want to do what they do, to fully own their actions. In this sense, freedom is being one with yourself, fulfilling your own humanity.
Let’s think about Saint Augustine’s iconic formulation of freedom – “Dilige et quod vis fac” (Love and then do what you want). Only superficially freedom is the empty possibility of loving or not loving (or even hating).
Only if you act motivated by love, you are truly free. When you act out of fear, resentment, envy, vice, you may act within a space of non-constraint and free choice between different options, but you don’t feel like you are really free, you don’t feel like you are one with yourself. You don’t feel like you really want to do what you do. You are truly free only if you act motivated by love – love for yourself and love for your neighbour.
The first article of 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. This statement is to be understood as a regulative ideal and not as a matter of fact. It is not true at all the human beings are born free and equal.
From a legal and political point of view, freedom must be understood as an innate right to be protected. Negative freedom must protect the innate free will of the human being. Human beings are born capable of free will, but freedom understood as being one with yourself is an achievement for them. Freedom is also a path to take.
- Neoliberal Freedom
Today we are facing a neoliberal and very pervasive idea of freedom. A freedom which presents itself as the opposite of constraint, but which actually generates constraint itself. In 2014 Korean philosopher based in Germany Byung-Chul Han published his book “Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power”. In this book, Byung-Chul Han states that the neoliberal subject sees themselves as a project which is free from obligations and constraints imposed by others.
Nevertheless, being in competition with all their fellow humans, this subject forces themselves to efficiency and ends up submitting to internal obligations and self-imposed constraints. Believing themselves to be free, the individual is in reality a servant who exploits themselves. As Byung-Chul Han points out, “Neoliberalism represents a highly efficient, indeed an intelligent, system for exploiting freedom”. “People who fail in the neoliberal achievement-society see themselves as a responsible for their lot and feel shame instead of questioning society or the system”.
With respect to the neoliberal project, it is evident that a purely negative freedom – which aims to limit as much as possible the external constraints of freedom – does not guarantee in itself the quality and the strength of freedom. Freedom is not only the possibility to do what you want. As Byung-Chul Han shows it, this kind of freedom can put the subject against themselves.
More deeply, freedom should be understood as the ability for the subject to want to do what they do, to be one with their own will and action. Freedom is the capacity for the subject to fully own themselves, and therefore to completely realize themselves. Only this way we will all be equal because we will all be enabled to completely fulfil our own humanity. Only love – love for ourselves and love for our neighbours – allows us to reach our humanity and autonomy.
This means that we should teach our children how to be truly free, how to be happy, not how to be successful.
- Democracy and Freedom
Even on a political level, freedom cannot be understood as mere indifference, as mere possibility to think or not to think. Democracy not only guarantees freedom of action and thought, but presupposes and needs citizens that are truly capable of free action and thought. The democratic form of sovereignty can only be achieved if citizens are fully in control of themselves, of their wishes and needs – if they are truly free.
A people incapable of controlling their wishes and needs produces a democracy of slaves. Otherwise, the free and active democratic participation is reduced to a list of complaints. The citizen is transformed into a passive consumer.
In these times, when negative freedom is much more limited than it used to be before the pandemic, we can take the opportunity to work towards the development of a more positive freedom. A kind of freedom which is the ability for the subject to truly become themselves, to be one with themselves. A kind of freedom which is not mere indifference, not a mere possibility either to love or not to love, either to think or not to think.
Negative freedom is a precondition of love, but love is a precondition of positive freedom. “Love and then do what you want”.
Biancu (2021a), “Libertà”, in Dizionarietto di politica. Le nuove parole, Morcelliana, Brescia 2021
Biancu (2021b), “Libertà, invenzione (e manutenzione) di un concetto”, Munera. Rivista europea di cultura, 2/2021
 See Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (1785).
 See I. Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty (1958), in Id., Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford University Press, London 1967, n. ed. in Liberty, H. Hardy (ed.), Oxford University Press, Oxford 2002; I. Carter, Positive and Negative Liberty, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Winter 2019 Ed., https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2019/entries/liberty-positive-negative/.
 See Epistolam Joannis ad Parthos, tractatus 7, sect. 8; PL 35, 2033.
 See J.-M. Ferry, Les Grammaires de l’intelligence, Cerf, Paris 2004, p. 201.
 See B.-C. Han, Psychopolitik. Neoliberalismus und die neuen Machttechniken, S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt 2014.
 See E.-W. Böckenförde, Die Entstehung des Staates als Vorgang der Säkularisation (1967), in Id., Recht, Staat, Freiheit. Studien zur Rechtsphilosophie, Staatstheorie und Verfassungsgeschichte, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt a.M. 2006, pp. 92-114.
 See B.-C. Han, Psychopolitik. Neoliberalismus und die neuen Machttechniken, S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt 2014.
(Presentation at the SIIAEC online Conference 2021 on “Ethical Action: COVID Affecting Human Rights and Democracy”, April 30 – May 1, 2021)