We’re presenting a short series of abstracts of the work-in-progress our scholars presented and discussed at their June 2017 Working Group Meeting.
Thomas Joseph White, O.P., is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology, Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies.
Interpreters of Thomas Aquinas have long argued about whether he holds that beauty is a “transcendental,” that is to say a feature of reality coextensive with all that exists, like unity, goodness and truthfulness.
In the first part of this essay I will argue that Aquinas can be read to affirm in an implicit way that there is beauty in everything that exists. He also affirms clearly that this beauty derives from God, who Aquinas says is beautiful.
In the second part of the essay I will consider what it might mean from a Thomist point of view to speak of a transcendent divine beauty, and what is cannot mean philosophically speaking, given Aquinas’ other metaphysical commitments with regard to divine simplicity in particular. In the final part of the essay I hope to treat the question of how the beauty of the creation both manifests and conceals divine beauty, and to give special attention to the topic of hierarchy of perfections in creatures (as being, living and intellectual). My argument will be that Aquinas’ hierarchical understanding of reality is inclusive in character, so that an order of ethical and religious ethics derives from the natural order of beauty. The world’s natural beauty is meant to be respected and cared for in ways that acknowledge the intrinsic ontological integrity of “lesser” realities but also their inclusion within an order that sustains rational creatures, and their reference to the divine.
In 2013, Chicago artist Susan Aurinko visited a 12th century chateau in France’s Loire Valley that was once the temporary home of Joan of Arc. Aurinko returned again and again to photograph the actual places where Joan of Arc once lived or visited, using these layered images to explore Joan’s passion, from her inspired childhood to her military victories, brief political triumph, capture, suffering, and martyrdom. The photographic exhibit of Aurinko’s work at the Loyola Museum of Art in Chicago, “Searching for Jehanne: The Joan of Arc Project,” suggests the ways Joan lives on as a cultural and religious icon, preserved in sculpture, film, and popular memory. Many of the photographs in the exhibit are images of statues of Joan praying or striding triumphantly with her banner, superimposed on dark, churchlike interiors. Other photographs show wistful little girls with faraway eyes standing in the woods or next to rural outbuildings. Some images show teenaged young women in chainmail looking devout and vulnerable. These images float towards viewers with varying levels of immediacy, yet because all are housed in thick, dark, ornate frames, we are reminded of Joan’s distance and separation from us by time and constructed memory. Joan’s words, taken from her trial transcripts, accompany each photograph as a kind of narration or inner monologue.
These various photographic images of Joan—some as hard and remote as a marble statue, some as immediate and moving as a little child peering out through her own windblown hair—remind us that Joan is made and remade for us by religion, the state, and the media, but that we also make Joan what we need her to be. Here Joan is emotional, vulnerable, naïve, and devout, swept up inexorably by forces beyond her control that she cannot fully understand. Joan is also unswerving, courageous, and inspired, a person of frankness, conviction, and great integrity who survived not only the medieval battlefield but months of imprisonment, including physical hardship and deprivation, psychological torture, and probable sexual assault at the hands of military captors and religious tormentors.
Looking at these images inspired by Joan, their subject suspended so near, yet fixed at a distance by dark frames of culture and history, I am reminded of Vita Sackville-West’s Saint Joan of Arc, a biography written in the 1930s by one of England’s most prominent women writers, an admirer and self-confessed nonbeliever who eventually admits to new-found respect for miracles and the supernatural as a result of her research into Joan’s life. Like Aurinko’s photographs bringing us close to Joan yet insisting on our inability to really know her, Sackville-West’s biography alternates between feminizing Joan and marveling at the alien nature of her saintly masculinity. Sackville-West attributes Joan’s shrewdness to “feminine intuition,” and downplays the physical vigor that allowed Joan to spend nearly a week in armor without taking it off even to sleep. She dwells on Joan’s frequent tears: “She was, in fact, emotional, and wept copiously at every possible opportunity—as queer a mixture of feminine and masculine attributes as ever relentlessly assaulted the enemy and then must cry on seeing him hurt.” She notes that witnesses described Joan’s impatience as that of “a woman great with child,” and in her biography she sometimes calls Joan “a girl dressed up.” Such strategies are perhaps designed to bring Joan nearer to people who want their saints to be more “normal,” more intelligible as properly-gendered, tender-hearted beings.
At the same time, Sackville-West acknowledges the things about Joan that distance her from the ways many people still think young girls should feel and act. She finds it to be incontrovertible that Joan possessed the gift of prophecy; she also marvels, with nearly religious wonder, that Joan leapt 60 or 70 feet from a tower trying to escape her captors, yet emerged unharmed. She guesses that the Dauphin Charles must have found Joan an “alarming savior,” and imagines that because Joan “was not really a soldier at all; she was not even a man,” she must have had an “astonishing effect” on the troops.
Sackville-West is most impressed by Joan’s courage in leaving her childhood and her village to move beyond the familiar, and seems pleased that unlike many saints, Joan never used expressions like “my heavenly Spouse,” or “my Betrothed.” Sackville-West writes:
She is the least sentimental of saints, and the most practical . . . She is too heroic and bracing to appeal intimately to the average mind. She makes the mistake of being always something over life-size; something which, however much she may command admiration and respect, can never be loved in quite the same personal way as the more human saints.
I laughed when I first read this passage, in part because it is funny, but also because this sentiment about Joan is a common one. Joan remains a strange saint for many people. Despite the extraordinary record we possess of her actual words at her trial, she can seem oddly unknowable. Is this because she leaves her girlhood behind? Is her tender girlhood the thing we cling to as familiar and knowable, because her warrior’s ruthlessness seems too harsh? Sackville-West’s characterization of Joan’s heroically virtuous nature as a “mistake” is a humorous jab at conventional notions that it is more important for a woman to be loved than it is for her to do great things. As these words suggest, it is this ability to be loved that is so reassuring; a woman who does great things without being especially lovable is terrifying. When Sackville-West finally allows herself to imagine Joan as a warrior, she calls her “The Maid,” the title given her by the common people signifying Joan’s status as the figure of myth destined to deliver France from English occupation: “no soft saintly girl, but a stern and angry young captain with very definite ideas of her own,” and “that inexplicable character, the girl-boy captain—La Pucelle.”
Contemplating Joan’s martyrdom allows tenderness and pity to soften Sackville-West’s sense of Joan’s strangeness. Deeply moved by Joan’s death, Sackville-West notes that “many wept,” and notes the care for others Joan demonstrated in warning the priest holding a crucifix for her to get down off her burning pyre. As her biography nears its close, Sackville-West recounts the miracles surrounding Joan’s death without a trace of skepticism—the name of Jesus writ large in the flames, the English soldier who saw a white dove fly out of the fire and wing its way towards France, the executioner traumatically frightened by the refusal of Joan’s heart to burn.
Similarly, Susan Aurinko’s pictures at LUMA also suggest a figure we never quite know, yet who fascinates and moves us. The mystery of Joan’s nature, of virtuous courage at the intersection of human and divine, is the essence of Joan’s appeal, and this sense of mystery pervades these photographs and this installation.
The show runs through October 21, 2017 at the Loyola University Museum of Art, 820 North Michigan Avenue. Admission is free through November 11, 2017.
If you can’t make it in person, or weren’t able to register in time, follow along as we live-tweet #VHML17 our Capstone Conference from the University of Chicago https://twitter.com/UChiVirtue
University of Chicago | October 13-14, 2017
Our “capstone” conference will feature talks, panels, and discussions with the philosophers, religious thinkers, and psychologists who have been working together to investigate whether self-transcendence helps to make ordinary cultivation and exercise of virtue a source of deep happiness and meaning in human life.
Friday, October 13 – Ida Noyes Hall, 3rd Floor Theater
Saturday, October 14 – Ida Noyes Hall, Cloister Club
1212 E. 59th Street
8:15 am Coffee & pastries
9:00-10:00 amOwen Flanagan, James B. Duke Professor of Philosophy, Duke University
10:15-11:15 am Angela Knobel, Associate Professor of Philosophy, School of Philosophy, The Catholic University of America
11:30 am-12:30 pm Candace Vogler, David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago and Principal Investigator for the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life
2:00-3:00 pm Panel Transcending Boundaries II
Heather C. Lench, Associate Professor of Psychology and Department Head, Texas A&M University
Marc G. Berman, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology and Director, Environmental Neuroscience Laboratory, University of Chicago
Robert C. Roberts, Professor of Ethics and Emotion Theory at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, and joint Chair with the Royal Institute of Philosophy
3:15-4:15 pmNancy Snow, Director of the Institute for the Study of Human Flourishing, University of Oklahoma
Thank you to our conference co-sponsors: The Chicago Center for Practical Wisdom, the Committee on Social Thought, the Lumen Christi Institute, the Martin Marty Center, the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society, the University of Chicago Department of Philosophy, the University of Chicago Divinity School, and the University of Chicago Division of Humanities.
We’re pleased to offer live-streaming of these 2 keynotes of our “Capstone” Conference. Join us online, central standard time, for:
Friday, October 13 at 7pm Jonathan Lear, “Gettysburg”
Includes a brief Q & A session.
Is there room for an ethical inquiry into the meaning of the events of the summer and autumn of 1863 in Gettysburg Pennsylvania, after the famous battle? Did something go primordially wrong in our attempts to bury the dead and find ways to memorialize them? And do the dead haunt Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address? This talk is an inquiry into difficulties we face as we try to remember, memorialize and commemorate.
Saturday, October 14 at 6pm Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, “A Consistent Ethic of Solidarity: Transcending Self, Transforming the World”
President Zimmer will provide introductory remarks.
Cardinal Cupich will consider virtue in the context of building up the common good. He will comment on some of the fault lines in the present age that present obstacles, but also suggest the opportunities that a renewed sense of solidarity offers in achieving the common good.
After more than two years of research with collaboration between philosophers, religious thinkers and psychologists, the Virtue, Happiness & the Meaning of Lifeproject will present its findings at a capstone conference on Oct. 13 and 14, featuring keynote talks by Prof. Jonathan Lear and Cardinal Blase J. Cupich.
The conference culminates a project that brought scholars together from around the world to examine the enrichment of human life. Research in both the humanities and social sciences suggests that people who feel they belong to something bigger than themselves—be it family, a spiritual practice, or work in social justice—are often happier than those who do not. Scholars refer to the feeling as “self-transcendence.”
Panelists throughout both days, including scholars from religious studies, theology, philosophy, psychology, and economics, will discuss whether self-transcendence truly makes people happier and provides deeper meaning in human life.
Speakers from the University of Chicago include Candace Vogler, the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and co-principal investigator for the project; Marc Berman, assistant professor in psychology; and Tahera Qutbuddin, professor of Arabic literature.
“This conference serves to share our research with the broader community,” said Jennifer A. Frey, co-principal investigator, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina and formerly a scholar at the University of Chicago. “Our scholars from a variety of disciplines have reached similar conclusions about the essential role of self-transcendence in the general account of what makes for potential happiness and meaning in human lives. Our hope is that as this project winds down, we are only at the beginning of a new line of research.”
Lear, the John U. Nef Distinguished Service Professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the Department of Philosophy, will speak at 7 p.m. Oct. 13 at the Oriental Institute. His talk, titled “Gettysburg,” will look at the ethical difficulties of memorializing the dead and in particular the soldiers that died following the bloodiest battle of the U.S. Civil War.
Cardinal Cupich will speak at 6 p.m. Oct. 14 in the auditorium at the Law School. He will deliver a talk considering virtue in the context of building up the common good, titled “A Consistent Ethic of Solidarity: Transcending Self, Transforming the World.” President Robert J. Zimmer will introduce the cardinal.
“Cardinal Cupich has distinguished himself in his fundamental love of and concern for some of the most disadvantaged people in the city of Chicago,” said Vogler. “His call for solidarity is rooted in the genuine practice of solidarity, day in and day out.”