Preface by Dr. Ralph McInerny


There are two ways in which we can be taught by others. On the one hand, a person who knows something we do not seeks to bring us into possession of that knowledge. On the other hand, a far more difficult task, the teacher enables us to recognize what we already know. The second method can be called the Socratic, and it characterizes the book you are about to read.

From the very opening pages, the reader senses that he is being addressed by a wise man. Nonetheless, he is being addressed as an equal. Cormac Burke has developed what he calls an anthropology of freedom, a personalist anthropology. The great accomplishment of his book is that the reader ends by realizing that he already holds that anthropology. In a subtle mix of uncovering the obvious and displaying the untenability of alternatives, Burke enables the reader to see that, whatever he might have said on the level of chatter, deep down he has convictions about what it is to be a human being.

One is of course already a human being, but to be a person is to have a task. Every act is an effort to gain something we do not have, something that we consider it would be good to have. That we might not do what we do, that we might have acted otherwise, these are truths everyone knows. And in knowing them, we know that we are free. The most delicate achievement is to see our freedom in context. We are not so free as to be a law unto ourselves, as if whatever we did were a good thing for us to do. How establish that? Burke employs historical and literary figures to bring home the point that claims to absolute autonomy, total freedom, lead to enslavement and despair.

What kind of an argument is that? It is more a reminder than a revelation, and any reader will have sufficient personal experience to ground his agreement with the author. In doing so, he will not feel that he is adopting a new position. Rather, all along it has been implicit in his acts and his thoughts about those acts. In the Socratic metaphor, Burke is the midwife, but the reader comes forth with the ideas. The development is from the implicit to the explicit.

The historical Socrates made unabashed appeal to his belief in God, assuming that his interlocutor shared that belief. Cormac Burke is writing in what has been called the post-Christian era, an age characterized by skepticism and doubt, often outright atheism. In his socratic task, he cannot make the appeal the original Socrates did. And yet here is an extraordinary thing about this book: after the calm and self-effacing treatments of personal and social values, seen as embedded in our implicit knowledge of what we are, Burke ends with the suggestion that what we have now made explicit suggests something more. And he leaves it to the reader to see whether that something more is avoidable.

In short, this is a wise book, and one that has the delightful effect of enabling the reader to see that he himself is not devoid of wisdom.

Ralph McInerny

University of Notre Dame