Character Is Not Built Through Osmosis

Osmosis, as anyone who has taken a high school course in biology knows, is the tendency of a fluid, usually water, to pass through a semipermeable membrane into a solution where the solvent concentration is higher, thus equalizing the concentrations of materials on either side of the membrane. The term “osmosis” is a Latinized form of the Greek word, osmos, meaning “a push”. It also refers to the gradual or unconscious assimilation of ideas.

Education is a conscious assimilation of ideas that conform to reality. It is a process by which objective data pass through the senses and are possessed by the knower. Education is not the same as osmosis, although what passes for education in many instances these days is often the passage of toxic cultural ideas through a weak defense system into a person thus forming a mirror image of culture. In other words, the osmotic process in education is akin to extreme socialization or acculturation in which mind and culture have an equal concentration of the same ideas.   

When Dostoevsky submitted his manuscript, Crime and Punishment, to the publisher, he included a note stating that his story was about a university student whose mind was infected by incomplete ideas that float on the wind.  The great Russian novelist understood that education is not the same as infection.  Raskolnikov, the main character of the book, did not understand his culture; he was possessed by it.

Saint Thomas Aquinas understood the osmotic process in moral terms:  “There is not much sinning because of man’s natural desires.  But the stimuli of desire which man’s cunning has devised are something else, and for the sake of these one sins very much.”  We are immersed in culture and are sitting ducks for the various temptations it provides.  A person becomes more inclined to sin through cultural seduction than because of his natural appetites.  Aquinas’ statement is sympathetic toward vulnerable human beings and sharply critical of the concentration of bad ideas that circulate within culture.


The distinguished Thomistic philosopher, Josef Pieper is agreement with Saint Thomas.  In his classic, The Four Cardinal Virtues, he states that “Intemperance is enkindled above all by the seductive glamour of the stimuli provided in an artificial civilization, with which the dishonorable team of blind lust and calculated greed surround the province of sexuality”.

St. Thomas used the term “cunning”.  Since the 13th century this notion has evolved greatly and is accurately expressed in the modern era by the phrase that Pieper employs:  “artificial civilization”.  Technology dominates the cultural landscape and along with it, pornography, abortion and euthanasia propaganda, together with various “devices” that hyper-stimulate.  Our weak “semipermeable membrane” is a poor defense against the toxic ideas that “push” their way into our hearts and minds.

The daily news informs us of the pandemic of moral horrors, both within and outside of the Church, that have left many people both confused and distraught.  The attempt to rectify the situation seems futile as the problems increase.  The essence of the moral problems that are currently tearing society apart is twofold, is a fact that is usually ignored.  The application of the usual bromides is insufficient.  One must go to the heart of the dilemma. 

On one side of the problem is a toxic culture. Yet, the liberal mood in society that has brought about this plague of problems remains unchastised. Nonetheless, something must be done to detoxify culture. The first step would be to awaken people to the fact that the great liberal experiment has failed.

On the other side of the problem is the relatively defenseless person, especially the teenager whose moral defense system has not been adequately developed, who is a victim of today’s artificial world. The remedies for this problem are more within reach than the task of transforming culture. Families and small communities must take the initiative and instruct people about the present situation which demands understanding, discipline, the development of one’s spirituality, and community support. If people are cold within their house, the solution is not to add clothing but to get at the source of the problem which is the open door that is inviting the cold.

We baptize a bad culture with the word “progress” while we boast that we are “liberal”. At the same time, we are not at all happy with what is going on. The poet, Piet Hien, has remarked that “The noble art of losing face may one day save the human race”. We must abandon the twin illusions of cultural progress and personal liberation. And, above all, pray to God for grace. Character is built not through osmosis but through the combination learning, discipline, brotherly love, and God’s readily available assistance.

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash


Dr. Donald DeMarco—Prof. Emeritus, St. Jerome’s University; Adjunct Prof., Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He is a regular columnist for the St. Austin Review. His latest books, How To Navigate through Life and Apostles of the Culture of Life is posted on He is also the author of How to Flourish in a Fallen World (En Route publishers). Reflections on the Covid-19 virus: A Search for Meaning is in production.

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