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The Book of Stephen

The aftermath of a stroke becomes a new field of learning for a philosopher who must rebuild himself -- body, mind and spirit

Cover Story

April 20, 2003|By Story by Tom Dunkel | Story by Tom Dunkel,SUN STAFF

They are the Batman and Robin of metaphysics. Years ago, Vicchio established a nonprofit Institute of Applied Philosophy at Notre Dame and eventually got Dreisbach involved to lighten the load. Vicchio has a melancholy streak. Dreisbach, an affable Minnesotan, never met a day he didn't like. Both, however, are admirers of Socrates, whose preferred classroom was the bustling Acropolis in Athens. Vicchio founded the Institute to carry on that grassroots-intellectual tradition.

"Public philosophy is the business of taking philosophy to real people, not just others in the Ivory Tower," says Dreisbach. "He does that better than anybody I've ever met."

In 1995 The Carnegie Foundation named Vicchio Maryland's "Professor of the Year", but his career sprawls far beyond campus. His essays aren't spongy academic pontifications, but rather the work of a sharp-eyed reporter whose beat is the human condition. He riffs on matters large and small: his father's hands, loneliness, the birth of his first child, the dropping of the atomic bomb. The writing often glistens, witness his nutshell description of Sister Virgina Geiger, one of Vicchio's favorite nuns at Notre Dame: "She has the kind of gentle face that one wishes to fall into, as a bee tumbles into a flower."

Vicchio and Dreisbach will take their Socratic dialogue act to elementary schools, colleges, union halls, corporations, the CIA, FBI, and other government agencies; talking real-world ethics with anyone who'll lend an ear. Sheldon Greenberg, an ex-cop who heads Johns Hopkins' Police Executive Leadership Program, says visitors to Vicchio's class might be surprised to find themselves in the middle of a "fierce debate" about Emanuel Kant's moral absolutism vs. John Stuart Mills' moral relativism.

"Stephen's teaching has made me wrestle to the point of losing sleep over decisions I made in the past," says Greenberg. "For example, my trust in eye-witness identification, my trust in repressed memory. Things that caused me as a young officer to make arrests and build cases, I now challenge."

As Vicchio's reputation grew, he was drafted to help write guidelines on police integrity for the Justice Department and, odd as it may seem, to lend his analytical eye to about a dozen local murder and serial-rape investigations.

"He could remove himself from the emotions of a case," says Captain Stanley Malm of the Annapolis Police Department. "Did he help us solve some cases? Yes. Did he come in and say 'It was the candlestick and Colonel Mustard?' No."

Marc Steiner thinks Vicchio has a knack for getting to the crux of all things philosophic because he's a "working-class kid." He grew up in Irvington, the same lower-middle-class, multiethnic enclave that produced New York Times columnist Russell Baker. In fact, Vicchio delivered newspapers to Baker's mother. His father, John, was a roofer by trade and baseball and football coach in his spare time. Stephen -- who is sandwiched between older, twin sisters and a younger brother -- went to Mount St. Joseph's High School, along with everybody else in the neighborhood. He played football and basketball, ran track, and got good, but not exceptional, grades.

A fire was sparked inside him in junior high school by a precocious classmate who kept asking a chase-your-tail question: If God is all-powerful, he should be able to make his left hand so heavy that his right hand can't lift it. But if God can't lift his left hand, that means he's not all-powerful, right? Go stick an eraser in your mouth, kid. That's probably what the St. Joe priests wanted to say. For his part, Stephen was enthralled. "I heard those questions," he says, "and I thought they were great. So I spent my life trying to figure them out."

His brain didn't kick into high gear until college. He studied philosophy at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, taught school in the city for three years, earned a masters degree at Yale Divinity School, then called it quits with a Ph.D. in philosophy of religion and ethics at Saint Andrews University in Scotland.

He rented a cottage in the Scottish highlands, where he hunkered down to write his dissertation on the Book of Job and the perceived injustices of human suffering. All that cogitating apparently took its toll. When he finished writing his thesis, Vicchio drove back to his dorm room at St. Andrews, strolled onto a pier at the end of the block and celebrated in a very unintellectual, working-class-kid way: He heaved his typewriter into the North Sea.

Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof; and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.

-- Ecclesiastes 7:8

Vicchio is of the opinion that America would be a better place if everybody just spent a week in a wheelchair.

"He's much more intimately connected to the world of suffering than he used to be," says Chris Dreisbach. "Everything is fair game for a public philosopher. This is just another opportunity to him. He's turning it into field research."

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