Kaag delivers tough questions and hopeful message at Luchinsky Lecture

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — John Kaag teaches philosophy to college students, and one of the first questions he asks them every semester is "Why are you here?" Typically, the Penn State and Schreyer Honors College alumnus said Monday, students tell him that they want to pass the class to receive a degree, to get a good job, to make money, to provide themselves with a comfortable way of life.

That sort of instrumental reasoning, or means-to-an-end living, Kaag explained to an audience in Palmer Lipcon Auditorium at the Palmer Museum of Art during the 23rd annual Mark Luchinsky Lecture on Jan. 29, is all too prevalent in contemporary society, but it has one major flaw — life can end at any moment.

During his lecture, "Morality in an Age of Hubris — What Matters Most and Why," Kaag, a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, wondered aloud if Icarus got what was coming to him when he flew too close to the sun and discussed how the loss of a brother inspired Henry David Thoreau to live deliberately. He urged an audience of mostly students about the same age as Mark Luchinsky, a Penn State student who died in 1995 at the age of 20, to both self-examine and self-reflect.

"Time is of the essence," Kaag said. "To squander the life you have is an act of ingratitude."

Kaag, who graduated from Penn State's College of theLiberal Arts in 2003, is the author "American Philosophy: A Love Story," a part-history, part-memoir that was a 2016 NPR Best Book of the Year and chronicled how philosophy transformed his own life.

During his lecture, he used the tale of Gyges, the Lydian king who became obsessed with ambition and power after discovering a ring that made him invisible, to illustrate the lure of pursuing extrinsic values (wealth, prestige, possessions) rather than intrinsic values (happiness, contentment, friendship). He asked students what they would do if they knew they had only 38 minutes to live, and their answers reflected more of the latter.

Finding that balance, and "destabilizing" hubris through self-reflection, is not comfortable, Kaag said, but it is possible.

"There is a way to take up your daily grind without making it feel like a grind," he said.

An audience of predominately Schreyer Scholars, which also included State College Mayor Don Hahn, laughed at Kaag's self-effacing humor and also appreciated his sobering takes on mortality.

"My favorite thing about philosophy is when it makes you stop and think about the kind of mundane things that we all do every day," said Schreyer Scholar and junior philosophy and political science major Brendan Bernicker. "Dr. Kaag did a great job of bringing everything to a screeching halt. It's hard to take a message like 'Everyone's going to die' and turn it into a hopeful plea to live well, and to me that's a high achievement, when someone can do that."

The Luchinsky Memorial Lecture Series was endowed by family and friends to honor the memory of Mark Luchinsky through the support of a speaker who exemplifies intellectual honesty, personal integrity and joy in learning. Luchinsky, a Schreyer Scholar and biochemistry major, graduated first in his class in 1992 from Thomas Jefferson High School and was a member of the Penn State Golden Key Society and the Alpha Epsilon Delta Premedical Honor Society. Known for his intellectual honesty and integrity, Luchinsky enjoyed the study of all subjects and loved the classics, sports, poetry, history and geography.

The 2017 Mark Luchinsky Memorial Lecture was co-sponsored by the Presidential Leadership Academy, the Schreyer Honors College Student Council, and the Rock Ethics Institute.

Last Updated January 30, 2018