Sacred and Profane Love Episode 12: Meaning, Murder, and Divine Madness

 

Download Episode 12: Meaning, Murder, and Divine Madness

In Episode 12 of Sacred & Profane Love, “Meaning, Murder, and Divine Madness,” I speak with the eminent moral theologian, Fr Michael Sherwin, O.P., about Donna Tartt’s breakout bestseller, The Secret History.  We discuss how the novel is best situated within both the Southern Gothic and the Southern Catholic Gothic literary genres, and how Donna Tartt, like Flannery O’Connor, understands the task of the novelist as helping us come to see ourselves and our world as it truly is.

For good measure, we also discuss demonic possession, mystery cults, religious ecstasy, evil, Augustine, Nietzsche, Shakespeare, and Walker Percy.  I hope you enjoy our conversation.

 

Rev. Prof. Michael Sherwin OPwas one of our faculty for our 2016 Summer Session “Virtue & Happiness”, and is Professor of Fundamental Moral Theology at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. Fr. Sherwin is director of the Saint Thomas Aquinas Institute for Theology and Culture and of the Pinckaers Archives.  Author of articles on the psychology of love, virtue ethics and moral development, his monograph, By Knowledge and By Love: Charity and Knowledge in the Moral Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas (CUA Press, 2005) has been reissued in paperback.

 

Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina. Prior to joining the philosophy faculty at USC, she was a Collegiate Assistant Professor of Humanities at the University of Chicago, where she was a member of the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts and an affiliated faculty in the philosophy department.  She earned her PhD in philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, and her B.A. in Philosophy and Medieval Studies (with Classics minor) at Indiana University-Bloomington. Her research lies at the intersection of philosophy of action, ethics, and law, with a particular focus on the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition.

 Subscribe

Preview on iTunes

This podcast is a project of Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life, and is made possible through a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

Content copyright the University of South Carolina and the University of Chicago.

Music credits, “Help me Somebody,” by Brian Eno and David Byrne, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.5.

Veritas Forum Podcast

 

images-2

You’ll notice that our blog has a new look. This was not exactly intentional (the blog has fully transitioned over to me, after disappearing for a few days on account of my technical incompetence), and certainly doesn’t dazzle,  but I suspect no one comes here for the look of it anyway. Also, it might change again!

I am off to Switzerland now for a conference in honor of an intellectual hero of mine, and to record another episode of Sacred & Profane Love (this time on Donna Tartt’s absolutely spellbinding novel, The Secret History, with the ever brilliant, Fr. Michael Sherwin, O.P.). I hope to get back to a regular schedule of releasing new episodes after an especially unforgiving October lecture schedule.

In the meantime, I have another podcast episode to share.  I recorded this episode of The Veritas Forum podcast, titled, “Happiness is Not Self-help” last April, just before my Veritas Forum event at Yale University with Dr. Laurie Santos. While at Yale, I was a guest in Laurie’s very famous class on happiness, and we had a public debate about whether virtues are “life hacks” (answer from me: no, they most certainly are not “life hacks”). I’m teaching a graduate level course on happiness right now, and my experience at Yale comes up quite a bit.  At some point I hope to blog about what Laurie and I could (and definitely could not) agree about happiness and the good life.  But for now, this podcast relates some of my basic thoughts and concerns about her approach.

Gilead’s Visionary Realism

Aristotle opens up his Metaphysics with a simple but arresting observation:

“All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight.  For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not doing anything, we prefer seeing to everything else.”

For readers unfamiliar with his corpus, Aristotle’s Metaphysics is his great work on sophia or philosophical wisdom.  For Aristotle, metaphysics is the science of being qua being.  The wise person doesn’t simply see reality, her vision includes a grasp of its essential structure, its fundamental principles and causes.   The wise person knows where to direct her vision and attention; she knows how to occupy her mind well, so as to find joy in the truth. For Aristotle, only contemplation of God can perfect or complete our most fundamental tendencies as a rational person.

All of this raises an obvious question: In a treatise on universal knowledge of causes, why does Aristotle privilege the senses, and vision in particular?  Why does he emphasize the delight we take in seeing and beholding?

I want to turn to Marilyn Robinson’s stunningly beautiful Pulitzer prize winning novel, Gilead, to try to get a better grip on this Aristotelian idea .  I read Robinson’s novel as a testament to the joy of contemplation: of seeing the wonder of existence.

The main protagonist, the Reverend John Ames, is a man who models the life of contemplation, a man who understands well that certain moments, which he calls visions, are occasions for the kind of contemplation in which true happiness consists.

John Ames is a taciturn congregationalist minister in a small and inconsequential town in the plains of Iowa. The novel takes place sometime in the 1950’s, and at that point Reverend Ames is an old man (seventy six) dying from heart disease, who has a young son (about seven) and a young wife (perhaps she is in her late twenties).  Reverend Ames’s voice is the sole narrator of events, but there is no linear progression or even a story that he tells us.  We come to know him as the author of letters to his young son, letters that make up the entirety of the novel.  He is writing these letters in the hope that he can share what small measure of wisdom he has managed to attain in his long life, and in so doing, reveal himself to his son, who otherwise would barely know him at all.

The letters, while often about nothing of obvious importance, are achingly beautiful.  We learn from them that Reverand Ames is a writer; he tells us that his attic is full of boxes that contain every sermon he has ever preached to his congregation.  It is through writing that he has tried to understand the human person, God, creation, and of course, himself.  As he describes his prolific life work to his son (warning him that it is surely useless), he remarks:

“I write in a small hand,too, as you know by now.  Say three hundred pages make a volume.  Then I’ve written two hundred twenty five books, which puts me up there with Augustine and Calvin for quantity.  That’s amazing.  I wrote almost all of it in the deepest hope and conviction.  Sifting through my thoughts and choosing my words.  Trying to say what was true.  And I’ll tell you frankly, that was wonderful.”

From his letters we see that Ames is a serious man, one who is striving to live in accordance with what he believes is true.  We also learn that Ames is grateful for his wife and his son, for his vocation as a preacher, for his quiet life, and for existence itself. But most of all what one sees in John Ames is a man who knows how to pay attention, and who is able to see a glimpse of eternal truths in quiet, ordinary moments.  Of such a moment, he writes:

“There’s a shimmer on a child’s hair in the sunlight.  There are rainbow colors in it, tiny, soft beams of just the same colors you can see in the dew sometimes. They’re in the petals of flowers, and they’re on a child’s skin.  Your hair is straight and dark, and your skin is fair. I suppose you’re not prettier than most children.  You’re just a nice-looking boy, a bit slight, well scrubbed and well mannered. All that is fine, but it’s your existence I love you for, mainly.  Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined.” (53)

For Ames, writing to his son and to his congregation is a labor of love. Ames sees an essential link between writing and praying.  He confesses to his son that,

“writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers, as I was often enough.  You feel that you are with someone. I feel I am with you now, whatever than can mean, considering that you’re only a little fellow now and when you’re a man you might find these letters of no interest. Or they might never reach you, for any number of reasons.  Well, but how deeply I regret any sadness you have suffered and how grateful I am in anticipation of any good you have enjoyed.  That is to say, I pray for you.  And there’s an intimacy in it, that’s the truth.” (19)

The link that Ames draws between the intimacy of writing and praying is the link between our love and our attention.  We pay attention to what we love, and that is why we must love the right things in order to occupy our minds well.  It is because Ames loves his son that he is able to meditate on the shimmer in his hair in the sunlight and see the beauty of his existence in it.  It is because Ames desires to know and love God that he studies theology, preaches, and prays, and through this work his vision of ordinary, everyday life is transfigured into the work of grace.  For Ames, ordinary moments become occasions for deep contemplative joy.  The novel is replete with examples of these visionary moments, such as the following scene he encounters on the way to Church:

“There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me.  The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet.  On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something out of a myth.  I don’t know why I thought of that just now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables and doing the wash. I wish I had paid more attention to it. My list of regrets may seem unusual, but who can know that they are, really?  This is an interesting planet.  It deserves all the attention you can give it.” (28)

Ames wants his son to know how to pay attention, to cultivate a contemplative vision of the world around him.  He speaks of “the visionary aspect of any particular day” that might reveal its meaning over time, through contemplation of it.  Ames tells his son not to lose these moments, that he may understand his whole life and even existence itself in them, if he makes an effort to see what relationship our present reality has to an ultimate reality. And we should make an effort, as “it is waste and ingratitude not to honor such things as visions, whether you yourself happen to have seen them or not.” (97)

For Reverend Ames, his contemplative vision of the world is a foretaste of the beatified vision of God that he hopes awaits him at his death. But that does not detract from the wonder and joy of this life, which he clearly savors and wishes to impart to his son:

“I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us.  In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.” (57)

John Ames wants to teach his son to behold the world, to celebrate it, and to be grateful for it.  To return to it in memory and to try to find the meaning and beauty of our experience of it.  In short, he wants him to love and embrace the world, to see why it commands our attention.


Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and host of a philosophy podcast titled, Sacred and Profane Love.

 

 

Sacred and Profane Love Episode 11: The Contemplative Realism of Marilynne Robinson

Download Episode 11: The Contemplative Realism of Marilynne Robinson

 

In episode 11 of the Sacred and Profane Love Podcast, I speak with Scott Moringiello, assistant professor of Catholic Studies at DePaul University, in Chicago, Illinois, about Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Gilead.  Among other things, we discuss the connection between contemplation, love, grace, and the ability to pay attention.

Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life: Onward

12553109_960946460651569_3937179836213188722_n

Just a few short years ago (September 2015) we celebrated as new signage outside our office was revealed – one of the first tangible proofs our project was “real.”

We’re grateful to the John Templeton Foundation for extending our grant through August 2018, and to our Working Group scholars, Summer Seminar scholars, Visiting scholars, and staff at both the University of Chicago and University of South Carolina, all of whom contributed to our mission exploring the interrelatedness of virtue, happiness, and deep meaning. Here is a short video capturing some of what happened in our two and half years.

Our website, virtue.uchicago.edu, will remain available for those who wish to view the videos of our public events.

Our blog will continue as well, and will be managed by our co-principal investigator Jennifer A. Frey at the University of South Carolina. If you haven’t yet heard it, her new podcast  Sacred and Profane Love is gathering many loyal followers. She will continue to post about the podcast and philosophical content. She will also continue to feature guest bloggers here.

Some of you have asked what each of us will be doing next, so we have gathered our responses here:

Candace Vogler: 

“I have been drawing from our research on self-transcendence and orientation to a larger good to think about bringing character education to students working in economics and those working on degrees in Business.  I will be teaching a new course next Autumn called “Character and Commerce: Practical Wisdom in Economic Life” to this end (it will be listed as a recommended elective for undergraduates in the new business track in the economics major” and am developing a new course offering with Dennis Chookaszian for students at the Booth School of Business.  I will also be working with a new consortium of medical schools to help integrate character education into their programs.  I will continue to work with Hyde Park Institute to provide programming for students at the University of Chicago who are interested in integrating their intellectual and personal formation, and I will be continuing to work with our amazing scholars every chance I get.”

Jennifer A. Frey:

“I plan to take over the blog and continue the podcast as time allows.  Further episodes in the works include one with Dana Gioia, California’s poet laureate (to be recorded in LA in November; content TBD) and an episode with Justin Steinberg (Chicago) on Dante’s love for Beatrice.  After submitting edited volume number one (Virtue and Self-Transcendence: Perspectives from Philosophy, Psychology, and Theology) this week, I will be hard at work at edited volume number two, titled, Practical Reason, Knowledge, and Truth: Essays on Aristotelian Themes.  I have eight articles that are under contract to appear within the next year so I am hard at work on those (which are in various stages of production) in addition to my monograph, Action, Virtue, and Human Goodness.  I’ve got upcoming talks this year so far at  Berkeley, Brown, UT-Austin, Duke, Columbia, Williams College, Liverpool, and the Royal Institute of Philosophy in London.  I submit for tenure in April (yikes!) and then my husband and I are taking our six children on a European adventure; we plan to stay for a month in Rome where I’ll be teaching Honors College students, and then traveling around Italy (especially the north) on our way to Germany, where we will stay in Leipzig and Bamberg for a bit to do some philosophy and hang out with friends.”

Jaime Hovey:

“I am teaching in American Studies at DePaul University, and in Gender Studies online at the University of Mississippi. I will continue working on Virtue, Trans Masculinity, and  Queer Gallantry in 20th-century and contemporary texts.”

Valerie Wallace:

“My new book of poems, House of McQueen, came out this year, and I’ll continue to travel to support its publication, giving readings, talks, and participating in conference panels. I am in the application process to find a new work home in communications/marketing, and will continue teaching literature and English for City Colleges of Chicago.”

12118631_924025287677020_2478505764007168737_n

We hope you will continue to be interested in virtue and virtue education, and encourage you to follow some of the institutes and scholars you have found here in the blog. As we turn the page of this chapter, we thank you, our readers, and offer this last stanza from “To Be of Use” by Marge Piercy as we say farewell, and reflect on the wonderful work we’ve done here, with you. Onward! To work, and the world.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

Sacred and Profane Love Episode 10: A Twitch Upon The Thread

Download Episode 10: A Twitch Upon the Thread

 

In episode 10 of the Sacred and Profane Love podcast, host Jennifer A. Frey has a  conversation with scholar Paul Mankowski, SJ, about Evelyn Waugh’s popular novel, Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder. They discuss Charles Ryder’s experiences of love, freedom, grace, and redemption as he becomes erotically drawn into the rarefied world of Lord Sebastian and Lady Julia Flyte.

 

Paul Mankowski, SJ  is the Scholar-in-Residence at the Lumen Christi InstituteA native of South Bend, Indiana, and a member of the Society of Jesus, Paul Mankowski has an A.B. from the University of Chicago, an M.A. from Oxford, and a PhD in Semitic Philology from Harvard University. He taught for many years at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and has published in areas of language, theology, and the biblical text.  He has written several articles on Evelyn Waugh.

 

Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina. Prior to joining the philosophy faculty at USC, she was a Collegiate Assistant Professor of Humanities at the University of Chicago, where she was a member of the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts and an affiliated faculty in the philosophy department.  She earned her PhD in philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, and her B.A. in Philosophy and Medieval Studies (with Classics minor) at Indiana University-Bloomington. Her research lies at the intersection of philosophy of action and ethics, with a particular focus on the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition.

This podcast is a project of Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life, and is made possible through a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

Content copyright the University of South Carolina and the University of Chicago.

Music credits, “Help me Somebody,” by Brian Eno and David Byrne, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.5.

Podcast: “Revelations of Love in John Steinbeck” | Sacred & Profane Love, Episode 9

Download Episode 9: “Revelations of Love in John Steinbeck”

 

In Episode 9 of Sacred & Profane Love “Revelations of Love in John Steinbeck,” Philosopher Jennifer A. Frey speaks with Thomist Theologian, Fr Michael Sherwin, OP, about John Steinbeck’s secular understanding of Christian caritas (charity) and how Steinbeck captures the beauty and power of love in the simple act of sharing breakfast with strangers. Their conversation tackles the nature of divine love as understood by Augustine and Aquinas.

 

Rev. Prof. Michael Sherwin OPwas one of our faculty for our 2016 Summer Session “Virtue & Happiness”, and is Professor of Fundamental Moral Theology at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. Fr. Sherwin is director of the Saint Thomas Aquinas Institute for Theology and Culture and of the Pinckaers Archives.  Author of articles on the psychology of love, virtue ethics and moral development, his monograph, By Knowledge and By Love: Charity and Knowledge in the Moral Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas (CUA Press, 2005) has been reissued in paperback.

 

Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina. Prior to joining the philosophy faculty at USC, she was a Collegiate Assistant Professor of Humanities at the University of Chicago, where she was a member of the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts and an affiliated faculty in the philosophy department.  She earned her PhD in philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, and her B.A. in Philosophy and Medieval Studies (with Classics minor) at Indiana University-Bloomington. Her research lies at the intersection of philosophy of action and ethics, with a particular focus on the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition.

 Subscribe

Preview on iTunes

This podcast is a project of Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life, and is made possible through a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

Content copyright the University of South Carolina and the University of Chicago.

Music credits, “Help me Somebody,” by Brian Eno and David Byrne, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.5.