Leonard O'Brian

A Philosophical Autobiography


When I was young, mother read to me from The Golden Book of Poetry. Brother Paul and I pretended that we were poor boys living on a raft on the Mississippi River. In fact, we lived in a Midwestern town surrounded by countless acres of cornfields. We felt neither rich nor poor. Our house was tiny by today’s standards, but we didn’t think of it as tiny. We just felt fortunate to own a house. Mom called our home, “The Sycamores,” because of two trees in the front yard.

As we grew, Dad told us that racial discrimination is immoral; that ritual is crucial to religious experience; and that fishing and baseball contribute to a well-lived life. Sometimes he quoted the wartime speeches of Winston Churchill or the love poems of Bobby Burns. Dad, Mom, Paul, and I talked quite a bit about personal experiences and political events. These discussions often had some religious connection.

During college, I lived at home. My mother was one of the first people I knew to criticize the United States’ war in Vietnam. I was more worried, then, about my struggling social life than about a remote war. True, there was a draft in those days, and Americans my age were dying; but college students could get deferments. My parents made sure that I had one. The war seemed fairly irrelevant.

After college, I headed to divinity school. I wondered whether God exists, and wanted to explore the question with real theologians. The project began uncomfortably. Suddenly, I was studying at a politically energized university that was located in a large, diverse city. Back home, my mother’s opposition to the war had been the minority position; brushing it aside had been easy. Here, fellow seminarians questioned the war at every turn. Many members of the university held teach-ins and protested American policies. I disliked hearing so much criticism of our government.

My professors analyzed the theological significance of poverty, disease, discrimination in its varied forms, and war. The Second World War had affected all of them—one had survived a concentration camp. Almost everyone in the Divinity School—students and professors—seemed convinced that biblical principles require that we minister to the people of the world. Integrity of belief obligates us to work against war, racism, and poverty.

I was getting more of an education than I had sought. I had come to this institution to explore a personal question of whether God exists, but was discovering that that question interconnected with a range of moral, social, and political problems that could not be brushed aside—whether one believed in God or not.

I went to Ireland for a year. I read philosophy and psychology, photographed the countryside, walked the streets of towns and cities. My main professor, an Englishman, encouraged me to devote plenty of time to talking and singing in pubs. I complied. Socially, I was blossoming.

And yet, even in this pleasant land, I could not escape the war. Some fellow students criticized the American venture aggressively. My professor, whom I admired, said, “We English are embarrassed for you Americans.” The criticisms accumulated. More and more, they seemed cogent. I was beginning to suspect that all societies—including the one where I had been raised—exaggerate their virtues and minimize their vices. Reluctantly, I was coming to think that I must question my government precisely where I had thought that I could trust it most, namely, in the gravest of matters.

Back in the United States, I completed degrees in theology and speech, and tried working as a minister. Soon, however, I sensed that I was not ready for this kind of work. Whatever profession I would pursue, I needed a broader perspective on life, and sharper skills for addressing life’s problems.

So I returned to graduate school in philosophy. Philosophy classes nurtured familiarity with the breadth of Western thought. The professors helped me to reason more objectively and methodically; they helped me to express ideas more carefully and precisely. As my classes in philosophy came and went, my view of life broadened, my appreciation for logic deepened. I became less defensive about the positions that I had taken, and more occupied with the quality of the reasoning whereby I had arrived at my positions.

These experiences, from childhood on, were producing a teacher of philosophy. I was becoming a person who raises and addresses questions about values logically; a person who applies an understanding of values to the problems that human beings face; and a person who cautiously—though consciously and persistently—seeks wisdom. Over the years, that search, the search for wisdom, has, itself, increasingly become a source of gratification, happiness, and meaning.