Christian B. Miller is the A. C. Reid Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University. His research is primarily in contemporary ethics and philosophy of religion. Christian B. Miller released his first trade book, The Character Gap: How Good Are We? in 2017 and it was met with a chorus of positive reviews. Much of his current research is at the intersection of philosophy and psychology. Thanks to a $3.9 million grant from the Templeton Religion Trust, Christian B. Miller is currently the philosophy director of The Beacon Project, which examines morally exceptional people from the perspectives of philosophy, theology, and psychology. Christian has also recently completed a five year, $5.6 million project on the existence and nature of character called The Character Project, with funding from the John Templeton Foundation and the Templeton World Charity Foundation. Christian B. Miller has also published two academic books with Oxford – Moral Character: An Empirical Theory (2013), and Character and Moral Psychology (2014). Christian B. Miller has also been awarded the A. C. Reid Chair in Philosophy, the 2014 Kulynych Family Omicron Delta Kappa Award for Student Engagement, the 2009 Wake Forest University Reid-Doyle Prize for Excellence in Teaching, and the 2009 Wake Forest University Award for Excellence in Research. It was a great privilege to talk books with Christian, so please enjoy my interview with Christian B. Miller.
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
I say that I am a philosophy professor. That usually takes people by surprise. Often it is followed by “Philosophy, what’s that?”. Or sometimes the response is, “I remember my philosophy class back in college…” From there the conversation can go in a million different directions.
What are you reading at the moment?
Most of my time is spent reading academic books and articles which are related to whatever my current research project is. But late at night I like to read something that is not philosophy before going to bed. Currently it is the third book in the fantasy Mistborn series, The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson.
I remember my mother reading to me for as long back as I can remember anything about life. All the way up to college, she would read to me every night before bed. Such a magical time, looking back on it. I can’t wait to do the same with my children for many years to come.
If you could encourage young people to read one book in particular, what would it be and why?
I think I would give different answers for different age ranges. If we are talking about 8-10 year olds who are really engrossed in reading, then I would encourage them to check out the magical world of The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. The stories themselves are of course classics, but behind them are also deeper claims about philosophy and ultimate reality. These claims are likely lost on most young children, but they can be discovered later in life.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
Lewis again, this time Mere Christianity. It was a deeply impactful book for me the first time I read it in high school. This almost never happens to me, but I can still remember exactly where I was sitting, what the time of day was, and so forth, the moment I finished reading Lewis’s book. Not only did it play a big role in awakening a religious life in me, but it also introduced me to the world of philosophy and started me down the path to where I am today as a professor.
When did you fall in love with philosophy?
Following my answer to the previous question, I started to read everything I could get my hands on that had to do with philosophy of religion. By my senior year, I had run out of classes to take at my high school, so I spent most of the day at a local college. That’s when I was initially exposed to philosophy in a more formal setting – first in Introduction to Philosophy, then Philosophy of Religion, and finally Philosophy of Science. All with the same professor whose name – you aren’t going to believe it – was Dr. Bible. A very good teacher and even better person. By the end of high school, and thanks in large part to Dr. Bible, I was hooked on philosophy. In the ensuing years, that would never change.
What is the worst job you’ve ever had?
In a sense, I’ve only had one job, as I went right from college to graduate school and then to Wake Forest University where I have been a professor for the past 14 years. It is an incredible job, and I feel extremely fortunate to be where I am.
Along the way there have been the “jobs” of cleaning up my son’s throw-up from the stomach flu or getting it out of my hair after he got car sick. But these are the normal events of life. They are hardly worth mentioning, except to laugh about in hindsight.
What advice would you give a novice, looking for an introduction to philosophy?
I would steer that person in one of two directions. One way to go is to start historically with Plato. The collection published today as Five Dialogues (Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, and Phaedo) can really draw newcomers into the world of philosophy. Not only do we get a lot of arguments and great ideas, but we also see them presented in an engaging dialogue format between Socrates and his conversation partners. All this, framed against the backdrop of the final days of Socrates’s life, his trial, and eventually his death.
Alternatively, the other recommendation I might make is to pick up a contemporary book that helps to make philosophy fun and interesting. I personally liked Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder when I was starting out. Although it is long, it is a fun read, with a combination of a mystery story and a survey of the history of Western philosophy.
Do you read as much as you’d like to?
Sadly, not at all. Perhaps I should qualify that, though. I read a lot of professional philosophy. And I read a lot to my children (probably 3-4 books a day). But I rarely have time for free reading, whether fiction or non-fiction. I really regret that. Life is just very full at the moment between my research, teaching, service to my school and profession, research grants that I administer, and family life with three young children.
What books do you feel are important reading for people on your career path and why?
In philosophy, there are the obvious classics by Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, and company. But to give a less generic answer to this question, I really recommend reading introductions to the various fields in philosophy. Like other academic disciplines, philosophy is enormous, and no one can keep up with all the work coming out in just one area like ethics or metaphysics. As a result, many philosophers become very siloed with a narrow focus on just one or a small handful of issues. To help counteract that, I have found it really rewarding and refreshing to read introductions to the philosophy of mind, science, metaphysics, epistemology, etc. even though I don’t work very much in those areas.
There have been a lot! Sometimes it is because after, say, 20 years I just don’t remember what the book says. Sometimes it is because I am using it in my research and I need to go back over the author’s arguments and make sure I address them or cite them properly. Sometimes it is because the writing is dense and I keep discovering new insights each time I read it.
To take an example of the last scenario, I think a case can be made that Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri is the greatest creation of Western literature. Each canto is extremely nuanced and rich, with complex historical and theological allusions. I find it hard to ever feel like I am following most of what Dante had in mind when he wrote it.
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
I guess it depends on the subject matter. If it is fiction, then my favorite of all time is The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Moby Dick by Herman Melville and Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe are right up there too. If is young adult fiction, then it would be The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis or Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. If it is historical fiction, then anything by Louis de Wohl who wrote books on the saints and Kenneth Roberts who wrote books on American history. For poetry,Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. For theology, Mere Christianity and The Weight of Glory by C.S. Lewis, and Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton. For ethics, Mark Timmons’s overview of theories in ethics called Moral Theory: An Introduction.
Who would you say are the three philosophers that continue to inspire you?
There are more than three, and I could go on and on about plenty of other people. But one person is Robert Roberts, who recently retired from Baylor. I love reading his work on character and virtue, but even more seeing how he embodies those virtues in his own life. In a profession filled with all kinds of displays of lack of character, he is an inspiration both professionally and personally. Another is Mark Murphy, the Robert and Catherine McDevitt Professor of Religious Philosophy at Georgetown University. One of my best friends in the world of philosophy, Mark is incredibly gifted as a philosopher and has published a number of excellent books about natural law theory, God and morality, divine authority, and many other topics. The last person I’ll mention here – and again I could mention so many others – is Donald Smith, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Virginia Commonwealth University. Donald and I were in the same class in graduate school at Notre Dame, and he has been there for me ever since and shown me what friendship is really about. Plus of course Dr. Bible, who I already talked about. I hope I have made him proud of the philosopher I have become these many years later.
What’s your favourite genre of book?
Stepping outside my academic world for the moment, it would be fantasy novels. From an early age with The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, I have just loved immersing myself in worlds filled with magic and mysteries, dragons and demons. Robert Jordan, Tad Williams, Terry Brooks…the list goes on and on. I have dreams of one day giving fantasy writing a try myself, but we’ll see.
What do you think a world without books would be like?
That is such a disturbing possibility that I would prefer to not even think about it. Books have been my constant companion since as long as I could read. They have taken me on so many adventures to far away places, and have enriched my imagination in ways that nothing else could. A world without books is a world where the human mind is stifled. Or so it seems to me.
Is there an author whose writing you’re such a fan of, that you’ll read everything they release?
Sadly I haven’t found someone like this at the moment. I would say this better describes my favorite authors from the past, like Lewis, Dickens, Dostoevsky, and Dante.
Do you think digital books will ever completely replace real books?
They certainly won’t in my own personal life. I love holding a real book, feeling the pages, and hearing the sound as they turn. Not to mention that I already stare at a screen for most of the day. So the last thing I want to do is read a book on one. Having said that, I do worry about the future of print books. 50 years from now, will there be any more printed? I dread the day when the answer is no. May it never come.
What book do you feel humanity needs most right now?
Naturally as someone who is religious, I’d want to point to a book that is central to my religious tradition, in this case the Bible. Or a book that does a good job making the claims of my tradition relevant and engaging today.
From a secular perspective, it would be a book about character. It seems clear to me that many of the serious problems facing our world trace back to matters of character. No one book can solve these problems, but hopefully one can be written from which readers will come away with a strong sense of the importance of becoming much better people than we usually tend to be.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
These days with my children we are exploring the worlds of Curious George, The Berenstain Bears, Winnie-the-Pooh, The Boss Baby, and The Little Engine that Could.
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
I am currently in the midst of writing an academic book on honesty. Surprisingly there has not been a philosophy book or article published in a leading place on the virtue of honesty in at least fifty years. My goal is to say something helpful about the concept of honesty – what does it mean to be an honest person, what are the vices opposed to honesty, and so forth – as well as about the empirical issue of how honest people tend to be today. For that I’ll need to consult a lot of studies in psychology.
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
The Examined Life.