Between piety and reason: As he moves into retirement, John Hare reflects on a lifetime of moral philosophy

By Timothy Cahill ’16 M.A.R

John Hare arrived at the conference early on the second day. He had agreed to stand for commemorative portraits with friends and colleagues, many of whom had traveled a considerable distance to Yale Divinity School to honor him. Spring sunshine streamed in through the high windows of the Old Refectory as the photographer positioned the professor in front of a fireplace. Individually at first, then in groups, they queued up to have their picture taken, most former students and Ph.D. advisees, many now professional philosophers themselves at prestigious universities.

This tribe of admirers was in New Haven this past April to attend “Moral Theory and the Trinity,” a two-day conference of papers and discussion on Hare’s newly published Unity and the Holy Spirit. The book, the final volume of Hare’s trilogy on the intersection of ethics and Trinitarian theology, served as the occasion for the summit, but the conference had an additional purpose, and arguably a greater one. Timed to coincide with Hare’s formal retirement as Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology at YDS (and concurrent appointments to Yale’s departments of Classics, Philosophy, and Religious Studies), the event was an opportunity and justification for the extended family of scholars and others he inspired over a half-century as a professor to come together and celebrate their teacher.

The conference was organized by Neil Arner ’07 S.T.M., ’12 Ph.D., currently Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Notre Dame. On the opening day, after welcoming remarks, Arner invited Hare to the dais and the room swelled with applause. Hare let the ovation wash over him, his smile two parts delight and one diffidence at being the center of so much attention.

“I wanted to hold this conference as a way to celebrate completing the trilogy and to discuss some of the ideas in it—and also because this is the end of 50 years of writing and teaching,” Hare said after the room had settled down. “It’s lovely to see all of you and to remember together the links we’ve had both personal and professional.”

Looking on, I understood why this man who’d been at Yale since 2003 was so respected, revered, and beloved. I’d taken only one course with him, at the tail end of my M.A.R. at YDS, but that was enough to share the affection that pervaded that hall.

Faith and reason

The tribute continued throughout that first day, as presenters prefaced their scholarly work with a fond anecdote, a warm word, or professional praise. That evening, at a private dinner in his honor, Hare offered some brief reflections about his career.

“I have come more and more to agree with T. S. Eliot in Little Gidding,” he told his friends. “We will go on exploring, and when we arrive, we will recognize the place where we started and we will know it for the first time. The end is already present in the beginning. I think much of my life has been devoted to trying to understand the relation between my mother’s deep personal piety and love of the church and my father’s commitment to the life of reason.”

Hare’s father was R.M. Hare, an esteemed post-war moral philosopher at Oxford. The son grew up in the halls of that storied university and went on to earn his undergraduate degree in classics there, then left England to earn a Ph.D. in ancient philosophy at Princeton. His first book, a commentary on Plato’s Euthyphro, was published in 1985 while he was teaching at Lehigh University. As a young professor steeped in the ancients, Hare determined to teach himself modern philosophy and worked his way through the canon, with particular devotion to the thought of Immanuel Kant. His second and perhaps best-known book, The Moral Gap (1996), broke ground in modern Kant studies by recovering the theological dimensions of the German idealist’s moral philosophy. At the same time, Hare also became proficient in medieval philosophy, especially that of the Franciscan Duns Scotus.

After 14 years at Lehigh, Hare followed his faith to a position at Calvin College (now Calvin University), a Christian school where he began writing extensively on the theologically grounded ethics of Divine Command Theory. Fourteen years later, he moved to Yale Divinity School, where for two decades he guided an impressive lineage of young scholars through the rigors of philosophical theology.

Arner is a part of that lineage. “What I find remarkable about John,” he says, “is that he integrates … philosophical thoroughness and theological earnestness with a childlike playfulness. While studying for my doctorate and serving as a teaching assistant for John, I observed hundreds of Yale undergraduates turn out each year for his introductory course on Philosophy of Religion. Part of what attracted them is how much fun John displays in exploring these topics. As he leads students on a journey of intellectual discovery, he is constantly bobbing around on the stage and releasing his explosive laughs.”

As a moral philosopher, Hare’s career might be summed up as an inquiry into the transcendental virtues of truth, goodness, and beauty. This ancient strain runs through his books, papers, and coursework, on subjects ranging from Aristotle, Medieval Philosophy, Kant, and Kierkegaard to Philosophy of Religion, Theological Aesthetics, Medical Ethics, and Ethics and International Affairs. All of his work is informed by his Christian faith, notably his writing on the theory of Divine Command, an ethical system in which moral obligation is seen as grounded in God’s authority.

Jennifer Herdt, Gilbert Stark professor of Christian Ethics at YDS, observes that the “gift” of Hare’s work is its “deep earnestness … that reminds us of the deep mattering of our reading and thinking and writing.”

Theological aesthetics

I received my own brief portion of that gift during my final semester at YDS, when I signed up for Professor Hare’s seminar on theological aesthetics. I’d postponed my graduation date and stayed on an extra year in part to take this course, which surveyed Western philosophies of art and beauty from pre-Socratic Greece to 20th-century America.

If it was the subject matter that brought me to the class, from the first day it was the professor who held me in thrall there. He embodied the integration of scholarly precision, religious engagement, and creative wonder that the proper study of aesthetics calls for, and that I aspired to achieve. With Hare as guide, the seminar became for me a kind of intellectual pilgrimage through the texts of thinkers for whom an essence of being is found in the contemplation of art, beauty, reason, and the divine.

Yet some of the course’s most moving moments unfolded when Hare set aside professorial authority and carried the lesson with the expressive and frankly sensitive side of his personality. To illustrate Kant’s concept of the sublime, he brought an electronic keyboard to class and played a stirring passage from Beethoven’s Op 2, No 2. During a discussion on the unity of opposites, he read from Little Gidding, his rounded British inflection drawing out Eliot’s themes of destruction and renewal with tenderness and measured conviction.

Toward the end of the poem, as the poet evokes the anchorite theologian Julian of Norwich (“All manner of things shall be well”), Hare halted in mid-sentence. The force of the words had touched some deep private emotion that made it impossible to continue. He left the reading there, the last lines more eloquent somehow for being unspoken.

Retirement and legacy

At the private dinner in April, Hare spoke about the meaning of his life’s work and made no claims on a lasting legacy.

“I saw how caring about his legacy ruined the last part of my father’s life,” he said. “He was deeply distressed that people, as he thought, were no longer taking him seriously. I think the ideas are important that I have written and taught about, but I do not care at all whether they are associated with me.

“The ideas I care about are in good shape, with a promising future” he said. “The most important thing is that people who are Christians and philosophers continue to integrate their professional work with what they care most about. I did not do this at the beginning of my career, and I think this was largely due to fear. I wanted to get tenure and I was afraid that if I wrote as a Christian I would not get published in the right places. But we do our best work when we write about what we care about most.”

That evening he also addressed the question of “What next?”

“Last summer my sister Ellie and I walked a significant portion of the Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain … walking in the footsteps, the tradition tells us, of St. Francis in 1240. I would pray every day in the churches in the villages we passed through, most of them from the tenth or eleventh centuries, and very simple but elegant architecturally. It came to me that I should write a simple book, not for my fellow academics, but for my fellow pilgrims. It would be like my book Why Bother Being Good? without footnotes and with no word ending in ‘ism.’”

Prior to the April conference, I spoke with Hare by phone for more than an hour. In an excerpt from that interview here, he reflects on aspects of his life, recalling his father’s experience of forced labor as a Japanese prisoner-of-war (in the camp depicted in the film The Bridge on the River Kwai), his mother’s ancestral roots in British aristocratic history, her influence on his musical training and sensibility, and how his reading of Kant informed his academic career. The transcript reveals Hare’s attentive and articulate habits of thought, but cannot convey his expressiveness of voice, how he punctuates his ideas with laughter sometimes chagrined, sometimes enchanted, with pauses profound with gravitas, with sighs by turns confessional, grieving, or alive with love.

Timothy Cahill: Your father was R.M. Hare, a leading moral philosopher in the middle of the last century. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes his experience as a Japanese prisoner during the Second World War as influencing his work. Yet, although he left a brief autobiography that was published after his death, he hardly refers to his war experience in it or anywhere else.

John Hare: No, he never talked about it. And I think that’s not uncommon for people who went through that. And he didn’t hate the Japanese, which was remarkable to me because he’d suffered quite severely on the Burma-Siam railroad. We were always aware of it, though. At Christmastime, he would raise two toasts at the dinner. One was to friends around St. Paul’s and “friends across the water,” which included everybody. The other was to his commanding officer, and that was the Queen. He felt a loyalty to Queen Elizabeth. After the war, King George [Elizabeth’s father] sent a letter to all the officers who’d been imprisoned in those circumstances, and said how much—well, he knew what they’d suffered and he was grateful to them. So, yes, it was a very important part of his life, and also, yes, he didn’t talk about it.

After the war, your father became what we would call a professor at Oxford, where he was highly regarded as a man of brilliance and integrity. Would you talk about your childhood, about your father and mother?

After the war, my father came back to finish his undergraduate degree at Oxford, where there had been what he called a revolution in philosophy under the banner of the logical positivists. I don’t know how much we want to get into the philosophy, but I’ll just say briefly that the logical positivists held that an assertion could only be meaningful if it was empirically verifiable (or similarly refutable) or a tautology.

As a prisoner of war, my father had secretly written a book on a ledger which he stole from the Japanese. In that book, he expressed himself quite explicitly as a Christian. But when he came back, after this revolution in philosophy, he felt that a lot of the things that Christians say, like “God created the world,” cannot be meaningfully expressed under logical positivist criteria, and that made going to church awkward for him. When it came time for the Apostles Creed, he would say it, but always a little ahead of the rest of the congregation, as though to express his distance from them. And if you asked him, clause by clause, can you assert this? do you believe this? —he would say no.

We lived in the village of Ewelme, which is outside Oxford. My mother conducted the church choir, and my father sang in it, though his beliefs are hard to determine. There’s the difference between my father and my mother. She was a person of deep Christian faith. She had a very strong relationship with God. She was also a botanist. And the British, you know, they care about the flora, so the whole of the country is divided up into quadrants, and there’s somebody assigned to catalog each quadrant. My mother took on the task of recording all the species and their frequency in her geographical area. I would go out with her whenever it was growing season. She was also a musician. She directed the choir, as I said, and she was a piano teacher. I actually took lessons from the woman who had taught her, Dorothy Reed, who was quite fierce. If she thought I hadn’t practiced, she would send me home. So, that was a serious business. And my mother would come and sit beside me on the bench to make sure I did the practicing I was supposed to do. My tendency was just to doodle and improvise, which I still love to do, but she wanted to make sure that I practiced my scales and exercises.

What was your mother’s name?

Her name was Catherine, and her maiden name was Verney. She came from an ancient family. My middle name is Edmund, and I’m named after Sir Edmund Verney, who was standard bearer for King Charles I at the Battle of Edgehill in 1642. When the Parliamentarians surrounded him and demanded that he surrender the flag, he said, “My life is my own, but the standard is the King’s,” and refused to surrender it. So, they killed him, and he was holding onto the flag so tightly that even after he was killed he didn’t release it. So, they cut off his hand. And when the family came to collect the body for burial, they had to bury him without his hand.

How old were you when you heard that story?

I don’t know. Very young

How does a child internalize such a thing? An ancestor like that and that legacy?

It becomes a kind of model. The Verney family house—it’s called Claydon House—is still there, and all of the family portraits are on the walls, and they serve as models of how you are supposed to live. I teach aesthetics, and one of the things I say is if you take these portraits out of the house and put them in a museum, they lose their function. Because as ancestors they have a function within the family, and they lose that. Actually, though, I’m sort of glad I didn’t grow up in that house. It can become confining. You feel as though the ancestors are disapproving of the way you live your life.

At what point did it become clear that you were going to take up the family business and become a moral philosopher?

Well, my father wasn’t much interested in us as children, myself and three sisters, and we didn’t see him very much. He became interested in us when we could talk philosophy with him, so from about the age of 6, if I wanted to have time with my father, I had to talk philosophy. It’s been part of my vocabulary a very long time. I remember writing a poem about Utilitarianism when I was 12.

But I didn’t decide to be a philosopher. I thought I was going to be a musician. I was on a music scholarship at Rugby, which was my [boarding] school, and then again at Balliol [Hare’s college at Oxford]. But I’m too lazy, really. I realized that if I was going to be a professional pianist, it would require four or five hours of practice a day, and I didn’t think I would enjoy it. And I didn’t think I would be good enough. I discovered that what I was good at was being clear about [ideas] that other people cared about. That was helpful for people and something useful that I could do. And so, I became a philosopher.

And to do that, you left home and came to the United States, to Princeton.

I didn’t become a philosopher in England because the community of professional philosophers is small and my father was very conspicuous within it. I wanted to find who I was professionally, and I came to Princeton to study with Gregory Vlastos, who was a very, very fine Plato scholar. My undergraduate degree was in what at Oxford is called “Greats,” which is a mixture of classics and philosophy and ancient history, and at Princeton I went into the classical philosophy program. It was really a very peculiar education, because at Oxford, I read nothing between Aristotle and Frege [Gottlieb Frege, a founder of analytic philosophy], who writes at the end of the 19th century. Nothing in between. And the same at Princeton, nothing in between. And it came to me that if I wanted to understand why we think as we do now in the West, I had to read Kant.

Immanuel Kant, pillar of the Enlightenment. Reading him was one of the defining decisions of your career.

I read the whole of Kant’s critical corpus on my own, without any instruction and without any secondary sources. And because I read him that way, on my own, I saw things that I probably wouldn’t have seen if I’d read him through the standard 20th-century [scholarly interpretations]. In particular, most of the sources on Kant are written by people who don’t believe in God. And since they deeply admire Kant, they reconstruct him without his moral theology. Where you find key statements about God they will say, well, that’s just a [remnant] from Kant’s earlier period and he just didn’t carefully edit. Or they’ll say he wasn’t sincere, that he just put [the theological references] in to get past the censor or for political reasons. I don’t believe any of that. I think he meant them, and they’re central to his thought. And when you take [the theology] out, the thought doesn’t cohere any longer. I think one of my main [professional] contributions has been—and I’ve not done this by myself; there’s a group of us—to insist on the importance of Kant’s moral theology within his overall thought. And I think the field has shifted over the last, say, twenty years, and my work’s been part of that.

How does your reading of Kant change the way we understand his philosophy?

Kant presents morality as having what I call a “gap structure.” There’s the [divine] demand, which is very high—leading a morally good life is extraordinarily difficult for human beings. Then, secondly, there are our natural capacities, what we’re born with, and they are not adequate to the demand. That’s the moral gap. Kant’s view is that [this gap] is incoherent, because ought implies can. That is, if it’s the case that you ought to do something, it must also be the case that you can do it. So, Kant appeals to divine assistance. That’s the third part of the gap structure, that God helps us to live by the demand that God makes upon us. You can see the difference that Kant’s moral theology makes here. If he didn’t have the theology, he would be left with what he calls an antimony, an apparent contradiction.

So, the whole foundation of Kant’s ethics, that there is a moral duty intrinsic to being human, makes no sense without the theological component?

“Makes no sense” isn’t exactly right. The way I put it is, it’s not rationally stable without the moral theology.

You’ve written somewhere that we are born preferring our happiness to our duty. That seems like a provocative statement, considering that we’re made in God’s image.

The way Christian theology puts it, and what Kant agrees with, is that we’re not created defective, but we’re fallen. Kant, because he’s translating all of this theological language into philosophical language, says we’re born with both the predisposition to good and the propensity to evil. But the predisposition to good is essential to us, and the propensity to evil is not. So, the response to the good is basic to us, but because of our fallen condition, we also have this propensity to evil. Kant calls it “radical evil,” evil in the root. It reverses the order of incentives, so that we prefer our happiness to our duty. And we’re not able to reverse that back to the good by ourselves. That’s why we need divine assistance.

I think I know what you mean, but I’ll ask anyway. In what sense is our happiness “evil”?

In no sense is happiness something evil, unless we give such priority to getting what we want that we override the legitimate demands that the needs of others make upon us.

October 2, 2023