Study in dark: Philosopher explores dark side of humanity in Great Courses
Only 1 percent of the world’s college faculty are invited to bring their insights, research, and knowledge to The Great Courses series. One of those chosen was Daniel Breyer of Illinois State University’s Department of Philosophy.
The company, which produces and publishes courses, invited Breyer to its studios just outside Washington, D.C., to audition in 2016. Once accepted, the writing and filming process took two years to complete. The course title, “Understanding the Dark Side of Human Nature,” intrigued Breyer, but not the description, which emphasized “encountering the divine through the dark side.”
“I really did not know what that meant, but I did think this would be a way to explore evil from a lot of different traditions,” said Breyer, an associate professor. Throughout his studies, Breyer pushed the boundaries by incorporating the ideas of Indian, Buddhist, and Chinese philosophies. For the 24-part series of lectures, he guides participants through different philosophical and religious traditions while exploring difficult questions about the human condition. Lectures focus on topics such as “The Problem of Expectation and Desire,” “The Fear of Death,” “Forgiveness and Redemption,” and “What is Evil?”
Examining moral responsibility and personal choice in the face of big questions permeates the research and teaching of Breyer, who also serves as the director of the religious studies program. He has debated Molinism—a theory about how God can providentially guide the world without undermining human freedom—in the journal Philosophia Christi. He has explored freedom and responsibility in the Buddhist tradition for the journal Sophia, and delved into the idea of cognitive agency in Pacific Philosophical Quarterly.
Breyer believes the bigger questions in life are not isolated to philosophy. It is just one way to approach them. If fields of study were represented by the human body, philosophy would be the muscles that allow other disciplines to stretch. “Everyone explores the big picture in different ways,” said Breyer, noting physics, biology, English, all look at big questions. Philosophy can explore the spectrum of humanity, including a varying degree of right and wrong, good and evil.
While many people shy away from thinking about what compels the darker side of human nature, Breyer notes an understanding of humanity only comes from pondering and questioning the entire spectrum of the human experience. “In my research, I focus a lot on what it means to be a person, and this (Great Courses) series is looking directly at the fragile underbelly of personhood,” he said. Breyer believes there is much to be learned by examining perceptions of the darker side of human nature. And his own experiences make him the perfect guide to help students navigate the discomfort that comes with discovery.
Growing up in a small town in Montana near Yellowstone National Park, Breyer recalled expectations were not high for his success. Breyer’s mother suffered a stroke when he was young, and had to relearn how to talk and move. His father left the family.
“So my best friend’s family became my de facto family,” Breyer said. One day, during his sophomore year of high school, his best friend’s father did not return home. “He was missing for a long time. And then it was pretty clear he had been murdered.” The case was the first in Montana history to use DNA in a criminal prosecution.
“It’s incredibly disturbing and terrifying,” said Breyer. “I was just awash with grief and confusion. It confronted me with the dark side of life.” Breyer dove into reading anything he could get his hands on about the bigger questions of life: death, anger, grief, vengeance, forgiveness, God, the devil, and the nature of evil. “That raised a lot of eyebrows at The Bookworm,” he said of the local bookstore.
Breyer found respite on the periphery of chaos, a comfort on the edge of discordance. “Listen to this,” he said, cuing up a song on his laptop. “I like scary sounding, atonal classical music by people with hard-to-pronounce names like Alfred Schnittke and Sofia Gubaidulina.” Jarring sounds emanated from the silver Apple on his desk that vibrated like a horror movie soundtrack plunged in ice water. “Who listens to this stuff?” he laughed, and then spoke of a love-hate relationship with roller coasters, hot peppers, and horror movies. “Maybe I like feeling a little unsettled, but I think it is part of the bigger idea to confront the difficult stuff rather than hide from it.”
Understanding what it is like to stare unblinking at the shadows serves Breyer well in the classroom. He often employs seemingly simple questions to challenge students’ preconceived notions, which can also unnerve them. “Rather than getting each question ‘right,’ I’m interested in seeing if students can think things through, if they can articulate, if they can defend,” he said. “Having questions remain open-ended can be frustrating. Not having an answer can be jarring. It can be uncomfortable. When learning is good, learning is tough,” said Breyer, who has been teaching at Illinois State since 2008.
Attending college at the University of Montana, Breyer fell into philosophy through a Latin class. “(Classics Professor) John Hay was the coolest guy I’d ever met,” said Breyer. As a classics major, he found in ancient philosophy a landing strip for his love of big questions and distrust of authority. “(Hay) opened the door so I could discover philosophy in a slow-moving piecemeal-type of way.” Breyer graduated with a degree in the classics. He earned a master’s from St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the Great Books Program, and a doctorate in philosophy from Fordham University in 2008.
His first encounter with Illinois State did not go as planned. Breyer was a teaching fellow at Fordham and went to hear a speaker talk about the Buddhist view of free will. “It was (Professor Emeritus) Mark Siderits from Illinois State University,” said Breyer, who followed a hurried Siderits to the elevator to pose him questions. “I asked if there was a connection between his thoughts and another philosopher, and he replied, ‘That will not compute,’ as the elevator doors closed. I thought, ‘That went well.’” In a dash of kismet, it was Siderits who interviewed and hired Breyer for his job at Illinois State. “I don’t think he remembered our conversation,” Breyer said.
Breyer often lets students guide the conversation to expose them to different ways of thinking. “People say there are no ‘right’ answers in philosophy, which is wrong,” he said. “There are right answers. There are just a lot of ways to approach them.” His style of pushing students to develop critical thinking has earned Breyer the Outstanding University Teaching Award for tenured faculty.
The Great Courses producers agreed with the University’s assessment of Breyer’s work. The company produces and publishes “courses by professors chosen for their ability to teach.” The Great Courses invitation drew from his extensive work to help create what he calls “the equivalent of a 100,000-word, cross-cultural, interdisciplinary, philosophical monograph.” It also took him full circle. “I loved The Great Courses in college,” he said. “Their courses were one of the most important influences on me as a classics major who loved philosophy.”
Understanding the Dark Side of Human Nature, Breyer’s online course, is available at TheGreatCourses.com.