At parties when people ask Steve Vicchio the classic American question, "What do you do?", he replies: "I'm a teacher."
He's learned that if he says, "I'm a philosopher," they look at him funny, mumble something incoherent and head for the bar. After all, when you meet a doctor of medicine at a party you can ask about your lumbago. But who asks a doctor of philosophy about a dysfunctional Weltanschauung?
He's perhaps the most visible teacher of philosophy in these parts. He has taught at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland since 1981, usually about 100 students a semester, in three or four courses that range from introductory philosophy to graduate studies. He was named Maryland professor of the year for 1994-1995 by the Carnegie Foundation.
And though he finds teaching philosophy is very, very difficult in one sense, in another it's easy.
"The easy part is that I get paid every two weeks to talk about stuff that everybody else thinks about when they can't sleep. And they don't get paid for it."
Vicchio graduated from the University of Maryland Baltimore County, Yale Divinity School, and St. Andrews University in Scotland, where he received his doctorate in the philosophy of religion in 1985 and the Thomas Gray Prize for the most distinguished doctoral thesis in Britain that year. Not bad for a boy from Irvington whose folks still live there.
He's a prolific author who has published 14 books. His essays will be familiar to readers of The Sun's op-ed page. He teaches ethics to police officers and doctors. And he's just written a play about hell -- which is not set in Baltimore in midsummer.
Reversal of order
He's written in one of his essays that teaching reverses the natural order of the year: You begin in the fall and end in the spring.
"It's a funny thing," he says. "You start when everything's getting to be dead, then you end when everything's coming back alive," he says. "That's probably the worst part about teaching. It's like having a funeral every spring. And you know it's going to come. But anticipatory grief doesn't work. You've spent four years with these people thinking about the most important things in their lives. Then, poof, they're gone."
The most important things?
"The meaning of life. Is there a God out there or not. Why people suffer. What the nature of the good is. These are not pedestrian things."
They are some of the issues he addresses in his new play, along with "the nature of reality the definition of truth the foundations of morality the anatomy of virtue."
For his play Vicchio has created a semi-existential hell with just two residents, Adolf Hitler and Ivan Karamazov, the unforgivable and the unforgiving. He calls the play "Ivan and Adolf: The Last Man in Hell." It's his first play in 25 years and the first book for Baltimore's new Woodholme House Publishers.
Its roots are in a conversation between Ivan and Alyosha in "The Brothers Karamazov," the 19th-century Russian novel by Fyodor Dostoevski. "They're talking about the problem of suffering," Vicchio says. He knows this stuff more or less by heart. He's read "The Brothers Karamazov" about as often as the rest of us have seen "Casablanca."
"Ivan says to his brother, 'Look, if forgiving murderers and buying into a grand plan in which it all works out for the good is part of being in heaven, then I'll give my ticket back.'
"I always thought that was a profound and interesting thing," Vicchio says. "That's the beginning of the play."
And that's why Ivan is in hell with Hitler for a partner. Everyone else has found contrition, been forgiven and gone to heaven.
"There is something ironic about this man who doesn't get to heaven because he thinks of himself as upholding the good. You can almost envision him standing at the gates watching Pol Pot and the rest of these guys getting in. It would be extraordinary for him, and incredibly painful. What worse thing could happen than to have Hitler as a roommate?"
You'll have to read the play to find out how it all works out and who is the last man in hell. But Vicchio is dickering about its performance, perhaps as a radio play.
A need for explanation
In contemporary life, he thinks, we find the bad guys fascinating. We have a need to explain what "made" Jeffrey Dahmer, but not Mother Theresa.
"We don't find the mystery of goodness much of a mystery," Vicchio says. He gets philosophical and says that we believe goodness is an act of the will.
"But evil is not an act of the will often, people think. For the far right, it's 'The devil made me do it'; for the far left, it's 'the neighborhood I grew up in.' But in both cases the will gets squelched."
Explanations of evil are often attempts to bring "an order on a chaos that's un-orderable."
"But the explanations are always wrong," he says. "We want things to be ordered: Better to have a bad explanation of something than no explanation at all."