Where’s the virtue in virtuality?

Challenging the piety of the modern university in a time of crisis.

(Image: Nathan Dumlao)

As the commercial core of the city creeps back to life, university campuses, like houses of worship, remain eerily still and silent. Ordered early in the crisis to shut down, they have decided to remain shut down. In virtual mode they are a veritable hive of activity however. Indeed, those of us who belong to this sector have lived for months through a daily bombardment of confused and confusing, then increasingly patronizing and self-congratulatory, messages. Herded into Zoom rooms for hours on end, at the exits we find nothing but long lists of memos and bulletins demanding this or promising that.

Even happiness, believe it or not. One advertised session at my university purported to provide “clear, evidence-based strategies to achieve happiness and purpose in our daily lives despite and throughout the coronavirus pandemic, while also safeguarding our physical health by adhering to social distancing and stringent hand-washing guidelines.” Meanwhile the principal, in her weekly homily to those in the e-trenches, enthused about the pandemic as an opportunity “to reshape our global future…; to rethink and redefine our humanity…; to create a world that is more just, more compassionate, and more humane.”

This, if I may say so, is the university as a house of worship. Converting it into a virtual affair, full of virtual piety, seems a victory almost spiritual in nature. I’ve seen that mistake already in the churches themselves. Both sectors have become deeply complicit in our disastrous overreaction to the pandemic and in the precipitous overreach of the authorities trying to cope with it. The calming voice of reason one might have expected from the university, like the courageous voice of faith one might have hoped for from religion, has scarcely been heard. Neither “clear, evidenced based strategies,” nor clear faith-based strategies, have been forthcoming in the really quite mundane matter of managing a serious but relatively low-level health threat.

When Worldometers began pumping out daily coronavirus statistics, it quickly became apparent that death rates were consistently around 6%, which by modern standards represents a high-level threat. But it was equally apparent that confirmed cases were just a fraction of actual cases, a great many of which were asymptomatic. I estimated that, even very conservatively, one must take this down by at least a factor of ten. At Indiana University a useful study of that state was being conducted which later showed a result of 0.58%. Other studies in societies with decent healthcare have suggested numbers even lower than that. So a low-level threat indeed, except of course for the usual category of people particularly vulnerable to respiratory illnesses; that is, the elderly or infirm. And under lockdown conditions, while some of these were being treated with heroic dedication by our physicians and nurses and paramedics, others, through monumental callousness or incompetence, were being left to die unaccompanied by family, unattended by pastors or priests, unsupported by anyone at all.

Where were the “humane” voices speaking in a timely way to that? Where were the arguments resisting the lockdown panic and advocating a much more strategically targeted response? Why were they swept away by doomsday models concocted by the irresponsible? Why were our leaders, in the universities and the churches alike, so docile to the state’s more draconian rulings – rulings that the evidence, as the director of Norway’s public health agency recently acknowledged, did not justify? Why were so few recommending the revision of those orders and the restoration of constitutional liberties? Why, for that matter, were our students granted every imaginable exception to accountability for the timeliness and quality of their work, and treated like frightened children too weak to take any real responsibility? Why was it deemed necessary – why is it still deemed necessary – for staff to obtain visas just to retrieve articles from their offices? Why can they go to the hardware store for a broom but not to their own library for a book? The university seems almost phobic in its response to the threat. And now it will deprive students of an in-person education for an entire term or (as in Cambridge) an entire year, maintaining lockdown while everyone else abandons it?

To be fair, the university does have its reasons for doing so. One is economic. Remain virtual and there is some hope of retaining those high fees from foreign students who might otherwise withdraw. There are also significantly lowered maintenance costs and monies to be saved by cancellation of travel and hiring, etc. Another lies in the need for predictability. If cases spike and universities are again told to close, or borders are closed, internal administrative chaos ensues. Holding to the present course lowers that risk. Perhaps there is a further motivation as well, albeit one that operates only subconsciously: the allure of a university controlled more strictly from the top, a completely bureaucratic university from which even the remaining remnants of collegial governance quietly disappear. It would be unfair, however, to make too much of that at the moment. For this is indeed a difficult moment, in which administrations must be prepared to respond quickly to unpredictable decrees while nevertheless seeing to the needs of staff and students, maintaining some semblance of academic integrity, keeping vital research projects afloat, and balancing budgets with an eye on the long game.

And yet the university has been acting oddly. We’ve all been acting oddly. Think back to an earlier pandemic, the Hong Kong flu, which in 1969 took more lives than the Wuhan virus has taken or looks likely to take. There was nothing remotely like the same panic then. There were no special measures of the kind we’ve been witnessing; hence also no devastating consequences for personal or collective economies such as we must now expect. What has happened to us, that in a single generation we’ve become so much more fearful, reacting to danger like startled birds or a spooked herd? How have we turned so pliable, so willing to trade liberty for (supposed) security, as if in fulfillment of Dostoevsky’s famous tale of the Grand Inquisitor? How is it that virtuality somehow seems virtuous?

That is too large a matter to address here, but I will venture an observation or two about the university’s role in it. Some see in the university chiefly its long tradition of optimism about the future of a race enlightened by the systematic pursuit of knowledge. It must not be overlooked, however, that this optimistic tradition runs side by side with a still deeper streak of pessimism and doubt. Evolutionary science (or rather scientism) is one major source of that doubt, for it has never been able to shake Darwin’s own skepticism about the trustworthiness of reason, given his genealogy of the rational animal. Another and older source is to be found in philosophy, in the form of radical nominalism and voluntarism, which lately has spilled everywhere the acids of its claim that reason is nothing but an instrument of the will to power. In this context the university is no longer inspired by the big questions, or guided by answers to them, as it was at its founding in the Middle Ages. The vision of an undergraduate education in the seven liberal arts, followed perchance by a graduate education in medicine, law, or theology – that is, in the health of the body, of the body politic, or of the soul and the whole under God – well, in Donne’s words, “’tis all in pieces” now. Only fragments remain, fragments to be arranged and rearranged in random, kaleidoscopic fashion.

That we can now talk of happiness and handwashing in the same breath is a case in point. It suggests that we have given ourselves over to living in the rubble of some new and rather pathetic moralism that, truth be told, is utterly lacking in meaning and purpose. That we can speak of a passing pandemic as “a tipping point for restoring balance to our societies” (whatever that clumsy phrase from another advertised session means), or even as an opportunity to reinvent ourselves by conjuring up the just and compassionate world order that has hitherto eluded us, reveals just how desperate we have become for meaning and purpose. COVID-19 as the unwitting agent of human salvation! Perhaps that is a tipping point – a point of capitulation to the Inquisitor’s skepticism about any higher or more permanent good than personal security in the here and now. The cost of which, as we know, is complete compliance with the dictates of those brave souls who venture to take responsibility for the rest of us, who provide us with a safe space. “Show us this space,” we say, “and it suffices for us.” “Shelter in place,” they reply. And we do.

For my part, I do not find in this health-and-wellness pietism we are being fed from on high (we’ve already had a belly full of it from bishops) signs that behind the vacant stare of our empty campuses there is light and life in the university’s soul. I see, rather, disturbing signs of decadence and of despair. And I am not surprised to find that despair simultaneously manifesting itself in another depressing form – an openly nihilistic form – through the rioting and looting taking place in the great cities of America. The latter puts the lie to the former, however much the former tries to find in the latter evidence of its own necessity. For the former confuses a more compassionate and humane society with the society of the safe space, while the latter takes an interest in safe spaces only as new targets for destruction. When the latter has gone far enough, no doubt the former, for a brief and portentous moment, will prevail. But then, as Dostoevsky warned, the unpleasant truth will out. The bill will have to be paid.

But who, you may ask, is overreacting now? One strand of apocalyptic panic about a virus will not be cured by another! Quite right. So let’s come back to the present and point out that the root of our problem is not difficult to spot. “Since the end of society is to make men better,” wrote Leo XIII in Rerum novarum, “the chief good that society can possess is virtue.” But virtue, alas, is just what we have come to lack. Virtue is something the university today seldom speaks of and does little to cultivate, because it can’t cultivate it without acknowledging that the human person is for something – let’s call it happiness or, taking the long view, happiness in God – that requires virtue as its precondition. Virtue, though it is intrinsic to the person, is a means to an end, in other words, and the modern university doesn’t do ends. It abandoned teleology long ago.

That is why the universitas is a mere corporation these days, not a proper society, though (like other corporations) it likes to think of itself as such. It is also why those who receive its formation are not likely to discover much that will help them be found among the faithful, the hopeful, the loving, or even among the temperate, the courageous, the just, and the prudent. If a university formation is all they receive, they are more likely to be found among those denizens of the virtual who are content on every level with simulacra. They will speak in terms of “values” rather than virtues and, just so, they will have a hard time explaining to the rioter what exactly is wrong with his rather different values. They can take a knee, if they like, to demonstrate their compassion, but they will still require batons if they mean to defend their safe spaces. Even a very pious compassion won’t do.

Thankfully, there is an antidote at hand to pietism, if we will have it, and a solution to the underlying problem. Principal Fortin (whose latest just now appeared like an omen in my inbox) won’t mind, perhaps, if I offer here a little homily of my own, cribbed from Rerum novarum:

When a society is perishing, the wholesome advice to give to those who would restore it is to call it to the principles from which it sprang; for the purpose and perfection of an association is to aim at and to attain that for which it is formed, and its efforts should be put in motion and inspired by the end and object which originally gave it being. Hence, to fall away from its primal constitution implies disease; to go back to it, recovery.

And what does the university most need to recover? Not merely, as the principal says, “leadership and action anchored to knowledge, compassion, and courage,” but also, as Pope Leo says, the kind of leadership and action that cultivates “a return to Christian life and Christian institutions.”

That will not mean the churchification of the university. God forbid! It is the Church that needs re-churchifying. On the contrary, it will mean recognition in the university that it is not the Church, but that it needs the ancient wisdom that was lent to it by the Church at its very foundation. For “of these facts there cannot be any shadow of doubt,” contends Leo, that after the decay and fall of Rome “civil society was renovated in every part by Christian institutions,” and that “in the strength of that renewal the human race was lifted up to better things.” Since better things are what we are all looking for, is it not time to say “amen” to that?

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About Dr. Douglas Farrow 27 Articles
Douglas Farrow is Professor of Theology and Ethics at McGill University, and the author of several books including Theological Negotiations: Proposals in Soteriology and Anthropology (Baker Academic, 2018) and a new commentary on Thessalonians (Brazos, 2020).


  1. None. Dr Farrow you’ve decided on the red pill. When first interviewed for the seminary our sage rector sat dramatically facing a partially shuttered window room darkened. “Peter life is a parade if you don’t join it it’ll pass you by”. After a semester I too decided on the red pill. Aeons since our world phased from liberated aimless marching into virtual reality. You were similarly lectured by a sage that “the pandemic is an opportunity to reshape our global future to rethink and redefine our humanity to create a world that is more just, more compassionate, and more humane”. For a realist breathtakingly preposterous for idealists living in virtual reality the Mind is the message [Marshall McLuhan’s the media now surpassed]. “Were being left to die unaccompanied by family, unattended by pastors or priests, unsupported by anyone at all. It is the Church that needs re-churchifying”. Not the university, nor the State as sole arbiter of social mores under the previous administration. Geometric technological advance facilitated a life of virtual reality where we can indulge in live streaming religious experience, or sexual gratification many and more choosing the virtual to the real. Or both religion and sex when the difference between good and evil has been blurred. Man reduced to an intellectually morbid sensualist. Pope Leo XIII was right about the good that transpired after the Fall of Rome. That was because of a new vibrant Christianity, not an accommodating replica of what once was. Now virtually recognizable during this pontificate. What is wanting? A man of unambiguous virtue. A Leo or a Gregory the Great.

  2. Dr. Farrow asks, “what does the university most need to recover?” In addition to “leadership and action anchored to knowledge, compassion and courage,” he adds from Rerum Novarum “a return to Christian life and Christian institutions.”

    But, in addition to “virtue”, what can be said, too, about his title issue: the downside of “virtuality”? What applied to the earlier printing-press technology applies infinitely more to modernday habits of brainstem ingestion from the internet. This tidbit from John Henry Newman (The Idea of a University):

    “All things now are to be learned at once, not first one thing, then another, not one well, but many badly. Learning is to be without exertion, without attention, without toil; without grounding, without advance, without finishing. There is to be nothing individual in it; and this, forsooth, is the wonder of the age. What the steam engine does with matter, the printing press [internet!] is to do with mind; it is to act mechanically, and the population is to be passively, almost unconsciously enlightened by the mere multiplication and dissemination of volumes [or now random impressions]” (II:6, Knowledge viewed in relation to learning).

  3. The last guy to have an answer to what ails us.Was a fellow named Ben Franklin.
    His letter of the 13 Virtues has long been buried in the dust bin of history by Academia & University alike,and replaced by liberal “gobbly-kook” and flat out socialism on campus.

  4. Well done, and needed rebuttal to the cowardly mess we are in. We fear the wrong things.
    Without the Fear of God, reason is pulled inward by the gravity of our sinful nature and IS nothing but an instrument to the will of power. We are blind cripples without God, and all we can do is crawl around in the dark and bump into poor substitutes, and our diseased minds can no longer properly reason.

  5. I don’t know about virtue but it’s at least practical to have Mass streaming on YouTube today with the virus issues going on and a tropical storm on the way.
    Sometimes you have to choose practical over ideal.
    I’m hoping that ideal resumes as soon as possible though.

    • And that is precisely the problem. We have reduced the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass to the ideal at the mercy of practicalities.

      A corruption of what is most important.

      • Peter Santos ,
        Just speaking for myself, I was extremely grateful for our diocese streaming Mass yesterday. We’ve not only been hard hit by the virus locally but were smack dab in the path of a tropical storm.
        Our churches are opening up more & more & things will get back to normal- which will be ideal.

  6. Where is the virtue in an entire generation of man ignoring the real world and people under very nose and outside own window,…

    and instead staring at a blue screen of death their every waking hour for every sensory input and mental titillation,…

    awaiting the next outrage over which to outrage, to fill their otherwise miserable, pointless, and empty lives?

    Then folk wonder why man is going rapidly insane, personally and culturally, forgetting and ignoring entire, even among those who claim allegiance to a religion, that their ONE reason for existence is to return totally the total love of their God, and to dedicate their lives here and the next to that love and utterly selfless service.

    Until they do that, they are only habitually unfaithful spouses and self-desecrating temples. And then they wonder why they are not happy and not fulfilled.

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