By Dr. Michael Pakaluk

The 1992 Summer Olympics remains famous today for the United States “dream team” for men’s basketball – Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson, Karl Malone, Dave Stockton, and others.   It still seems incredible in retrospect that these extraordinary athletes were brought together to play on the same team.  If you were privileged to watch the games, or you have gone back now to look at the old videos, you know that these stars even surpassed expectations with their amazing, brilliant play.

That great team raises the question: What is it about all-star teams in general that is so appealing?  Why do we want so much to see top, skilled experts brought together and cooperating for a common goal?  The phenomenon is quite general.   One sees it not only in sports—golf is perhaps the best example, with its Ryder Cup and President’s Cup—but also in stories of the stories about the military (The Dirty Dozen), heroism (The Magnificent Seven, The Seven Samurai), or even scams (Ocean’s Eleven).  Entire TV series have been based on the idea (Mission Impossible). 

In part it is the brilliance of execution that astonishes us; in part the complementarity of skill; in part the sheer wonder of the unlikely assemblage (as when it seems amazing that all the great works of some famous artist have been brought together in a single exhibition); in part the sense that these “teams” express, with great intensity, some deep truth about how human beings are meant to associate and cooperate with one another.

These reflections raise a parallel question:  What are the all-star teams in academia?  Where are they to be found?  Once in a very great while, an academic department is like that.  These cases are so rare, that they become famous and well-know, such as physics at Princeton in the 1950s, or philosophy at Harvard in the 1900s.  But it is too hard to draw that kind of talent together; and colleagues are often contentious and break off into quarreling factions; and now hyper-specialization keeps professors, even in the same department, from collaborating. 

Academic conferences don’t even work like that, because each presenter has his own findings to argue for, and the scholars generally talk past each other, or they argue against one another.

But there is a kind of all-star team in Aristotelian ethics, which gets together each year, and which this year gathered at The Catholic University of America, under the auspices of The Institute for Human Ecology.  This group calls itself the “Aristotle Workshop.”  Its organizing committee comprises scholars from three continents: Marco Zingano, from the University of São Paulo in Brazil; Pierre Destree from the Université catholique de Louvain; and Michael Pakaluk, from The Catholic University of America.  Its meetings rotate among those continents, sometimes convening in Brazil, sometimes in Europe, sometimes in the United States. 

Here is how it worked this year.  On Thursday evening, a group of ten top scholars began arriving in Washington from around the United States and the world: Panos Dimas (Oslo); Susan Sauvé Meyer (U Penn); Jakub Jirsa (Prague); Hendrick Lorenz (Princeton); Krisanna Scheiter (Union College); Don Morrison (Rice); Jessica Moss (NYU); Mitzi Lee (Colorado, Boulder); Adam Beresford (U Mass, Boston) and Marco Zingano (São Paulo). On Friday morning, they were joined, in a seminar room on the Catholic University campus, by local scholar Rachel Singpurwalla (U Maryland) and professors from the host university (Jean de Groot, Stephen Ogden, Ignacio de Ribera Martin, Herbert Hartmann, and Paul Radich).  Students were welcome, and many participated.

Then commenced two days of intensive reading and discussion, of Aristotle’s account of justice in the Nicomachean Ethics.  The scholars would take turns translating the Greek and raising questions starting from a careful analysis of the text.  As is the explicit ethos of the Workshop, they worked together in a collaborative spirit of good will, not attempting to “score points,” but earnestly striving to reach the truth as regards many difficult problems, such as: 

  • What does it mean for justice to be the virtue of an individual, for Aristotle, rather than a trait of institutions? 
  • How does natural justice differ from conventional justice, and how is this difference manifested in law? 
  • Is it possible for a person deliberately to suffer injustice?  –If he wills the injustice, doesn’t the unfair portion which another enjoys into a gift?
  • Is suicide wrong because it is an injustice, and, if so, is it an injustice which a person commits against himself? (But generally one cannot commit an injustice against oneself—for example, no one can steal from himself.)
  • What is the virtue know traditionally as epikeia (“equity”), which leads a person in a friendly spirit not to claim what the letter of the law allows him when he can see that it would be more just in substance for him to claim less?
  • Can justice really be found in social units less than political society, such as the family?  Or are members of families not sufficiently “free and equal” for their relationships to exemplify justice—that they must look for love and friendship as the standard for relating?

Truth is in the details.  Fortunately, Aristotle is one of those great figures for whom a focus on details, and a consideration of big questions, always seem to go together.  In scrutinizing the Aristotle’s text carefully, these scholars raised for themselves and participants such big questions, and they gave careful consideration too, to Aristotle’s proposed answers.

And why does any of this matter?  Provost Andrew Abela greeted the Aristotle Workshop at the start of its first session, saying that “this kind of gathering is exactly what The Catholic University of America wishes to encourage; the earnest search for truth is what a genuine university stands for.”  The search for truth in goodwill along with fellow experts should be at the very heart of a university.  As those who participated in the Aristotle Workshop became even more deeply aware, in the course of this year’s amazingly profitable meeting, the question is not so much why this Workshop is valuable by why such gatherings are not replicated throughout ever unit of a university.

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