Universal Human Virtues Found in Arabic Literature

These remarks correspond to our latest Virtue Talk podcast with Tahera Qutbuddin, which you can listen to here.

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“Qur’an with “tassbeh”” – photo by Doctor Yuri

I grew up in Mumbai, India, studied Arabic at Ayn Shams University in Cairo, Egypt, and came to Harvard University in the US for my PhD, which I completed in 1999. After that, I taught for a year at Yale University, then for two years at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. In 2002, I joined the University of Chicago, where I’m currently Associate Professor of Arabic Literature in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC). At the University of Chicago, I’m also affiliated with the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES), the Committee on South Asian Studies (COSAS), and the Divinity School. And for the past six years, I’ve chaired a non-traditional major in the College named Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities (IS-Hum).

My work centers on classical Arabic literature. I have a deep interest in literary materials of the early Islamic period that preach virtue, which is my connection with the Virtues group of scholars. Overall, my scholarship focuses on intersections of the literary, the religious, and the political in classical Arabic poetry and prose. My areas of research are classical Arabic oratory and Islamic preaching (khutba); the Quran, traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, and the sermons and sayings of the first Shia imam and fourth Sunni caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib; and Fatimid-Tayyibi history and literature (the Fatimids were a Shia dynasty who ruled North Africa and Egypt from the 10th through the 12th centuries, and the Tayyibis are a Muslim denomination in Yemen and India, who look to the Fatimid legacy). I’ve also worked on Arabic in India.

My first journal article, which I published in 1995 while I was a graduate student at Harvard, was titled “Healing the Soul: Perspectives of Medieval Muslim Writers.” I discussed the ideas of certain key scholars in the Islamic tradition who used the metaphor of the physician and healing to promote virtue and faith. I found that the earliest accounts were based in either Greek ethics or the Qur’an, and the Greek aspects were rendered over three centuries into an Islamic matrix.

In my first monograph—published by Brill in 2005 titled Al-Mu’ayyad al-Shirazi and Fatimid Da’wa Poetry: A Case of Commitment in Classical Arabic Literature—I combined material and approaches from several disciplines to analyze the poetry of the 11th century scholar, al-Muʾayyad al-Shīrāzī, who was chief missionary for the Fatimid caliphs of Egypt. Al-Mu’ayyad is acknowledged as a giant in the Fatimid philosophical tradition, but none had worked on his poetry before. Because it is underpinned by esoteric doctrine, its true significance cannot be decoded without careful perusal of its philosophy and history. I found and used manuscripts of his poetry housed in private collections in India, and I also used an eclectic package of literary, historical, and theological primary sources, many of them also in manuscript form. I argued that al-Muʾayyad flew in the face of the rival Abbasid court’s conventional panegyric to create a new, very personal, “committed” form of Arabic poetry, with themes, imagery, and audiences consonant with his religio-political cause.

My currently ongoing monograph project is tentatively titled Classical Arabic Oratory: Religion, Politics and Orality-Based Aesthetics of Public Address in the Early Islamic World, for which I’m honored to have been awarded fellowships by the Carnegie Corporation and the American Council of Learned Societies. In the 7th and 8th centuries AD, oration was a crucial piece of the Arabian literary landscape, reigning supreme as its preeminent genre of prose. It was an integral component of pre-Islamic and early Islamic leadership, and it also had significant political, military and religious functions. Its themes and aesthetics had enormous influence on subsequent artistic prose. Little has come forth on the subject, due to substantial challenges posed by an archaic lexicon (these are hard texts to crack!), a vast array of sources, and the sticky question of dating. But I believe an approach sensitive to its oral underpinnings can meaningfully delineate key parameters of the genre. I’m analyzing the texts and contexts of these earliest Arabic speeches and sermons, and I hope to construct thereby the first comprehensive theory of classical Arabic oratory.

In the past five years, much of my intellectual energy has been directed to a new publication series titled “Library of Arabic Literature,” and it has been a joy and a privilege to be part of this emerging venture. In 2010, I was invited to its newly-forming Editorial Board, whose mandate is to produce facing-page Arabic editions and English translations of significant works of Arabic literature, with an emphasis on the 7th to 19th centuries, encompassing a wide range of genres, including poetry, religion, philosophy, law, science, and history. The project is supported by a grant from the New York University Abu Dhabi Institute, and its volumes are published by NYU Press. Its Editorial Board comprises a team of Arabic/Islamic professors at educational institutions in the US and UK. We meet twice a year in New York and Abu Dhabi, and in the first five years, we have produced a resounding 35 volumes. In 2015, our grant was renewed for another five years, and in this second phase we aim to bring out an additional 40 volumes.

Many of the really important texts of early Islamic literature remain in manuscript form, and many have not been translated into English, or have been translated in less than lucid renderings. In addition to my analytical research work, I’m also committed to making these masterpieces of Arabic literature available in reliable editions and engaging translations, especially those among them that promote virtue and contemplation.

In this context, I edited and translated a volume of Sayings, Sermons, and Teachings of Ali ibn Abi Talib, whom I mentioned before, who was the cousin and son in law of the prophet Muhammad, and the first Shia imam and the fourth Sunni caliph. (Library of Arabic Literature, NYU Press, 2013). The volume was compiled by al-Quda’i, who was a judge in medieval Cairo. The book is titled A Treasury of Virtues, and in beautiful desert metaphors and brilliantly pithy Arabic, it enjoins universal human virtues such as justice, wisdom, and kindness, presenting them in an Islamic and Quranic framework. For example, “ The best words are backed by deeds” “Oppressing the weak is the worst oppression” “Knowledge is a noble legacy” “The true worth of a man is measured by the good he does” “There is no treasure richer than contentment” “A just leader is better than abundant rainfall.”

I’ve recently completed editing and translating another volume for the series, this one being a compilation of the ethical and doctrinal sayings of the prophet Muhammad titled Light in the Heavens, by the same compiler, al-Quda’i. In a happy coincidence, its tqinstagram.pngrelease date is today, November 8. The prophet Muḥammad (d. 632) is regarded by Muslims as God’s messenger to humankind. In addition to God’s words—the Qurʾan—which he conveyed over the course of his life as it was revealed to him, Muḥammad’s own words—called hadith—have a very special place in the lives of Muslims. They wield an authority second only to the Qurʾan and are cited by Muslims as testimonial texts in a wide array of religious, scholarly and popular literature—such as liturgy, exegesis, jurisprudence, oration, poetry, linguistics and more. Preachers, politicians and scholars rely on hadith to establish the truth of their positions, and lay people cite them to each other in their daily lives. These hadith disclose the ethos of the earliest period of Islam, the culture and society of 7th century Arabia. Since they also form an integral part of the Muslim psyche, they reveal the values and thinking of the medieval and modern Muslim community. Most importantly, they provide a direct window into the inspired vision of one of the most influential humans in history. These are a few sample hadith from the volume, which list traits that God loves: “God loves gentleness in everything,” “God is beautiful and loves beauty,” “God loves those who beseech him,” “God loves those who are virtuous, humble, and pious,” “God loves the believer who makes an honest living,” “God loves the grieving heart”.

Among the recent articles I’ve published, some are on Ali’s preaching. In one recent article I examine Ali’s melding of core Islamic teachings of the Quran enjoining piety and good works, with the oral, nature-based cultural ethos of seventh-century Arabia. Another recent article—and this is the one I shared with the Virtue scholars’ group in December—looks at Ali’s contemplations on this world and the hereafter in the context of his life and times. I argue that Ali encourages his followers to enjoy a happy life on earth and be grateful for God’s innumerable blessings, yet always keep preparing for the imminent hereafter, by cultivating virtuous traits and performing virtuous deeds. I’d like to read out to you a short excerpt from one of his sermons from this article:

O you who reproach this world while being so willingly deceived by her deceptions and tricked by her falsehoods! Do you choose to be deceived by her yet censure her? Should you be accusing her, or should she be accusing you?! When did she lure you or deceive? Was it by her destruction of your father and grandfather and great grandfather through decay? Or by her consigning your mother and grandmother and great grandmother to the earth? How carefully did your palms tend them! How tenderly did your hands nurse them! Hoping against hope for a cure, begging physician after physician for a medicament. On that fateful morning, your medicines did not suffice them, your weeping did not help, and your apprehension was of no benefit. Your appeal remained unanswered, and you could not push death away from them although you applied all your strength. By this, the world warned you of your own approaching end. She illustrated by their death your own.

Indeed, this world is a house of truth for whomsoever stays true to her, a house of wellbeing for whomsoever understands her, a house of riches for whomsoever gathers her provisions, a house of counsel for whomsoever takes her advice. She is a mosque for God’s loved ones, a place where God’s angels pray, where God’s revelation alights, where God’s saints transact, earning his mercy and profiting paradise.

In addition to the publications I’ve talked about, I always look to avail of opportunities to reach outside the ivory tower, and have lectured over the years on general topics related to Islamic history and Arabic literature, particularly on topics that promote goodwill among the human family. Two years ago, I gave a talk on “Imam Ali’s Preaching of Peace and Pluralism” at a UNESCO conference in Paris organized by its Iraq office titled “The contribution of Ali ibn Abi Talib’s Thought to a Culture of Peace and Intercultural Dialogue.” Just recently in September of this year I helped organize a conference in Kolkata, India, on exemplars of communal harmony in pre- and post-Independence India, that was hosted jointly by my father’s educational foundation Qutbi Jubilee Scholarship Program (QJSP) and the University of Calcutta, and was attended by the Vice Chancellor of the University of Calcutta, and the West Bengal Minister for Higher Education, and widely covered by the local media.

I’m very pleased to be part of the Templeton Foundation’s project Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life. I’m grateful to the Templeton Foundation for funding it, and to Candace Vogler for inviting me to participate. This has been a wonderful opportunity for me to expand my horizons, and bring my work into conversation with the major Western philosophical and theological traditions. I’ve especially enjoyed the practical perspectives of psychology and economics brought by the social scientists in the group on questions of virtue and happiness. It’s been a privilege to listen to these amazing scholars.

I’ve found many parallels with the classical Islamic traditions I work with, and hope to make use of these new insights and apply them to my own work. For example, many of the group’s scholars work on Thomas Aquinas, and the harmony of faith and reason that is expressed in his teachings resonates with several schools of Islamic thought, especially one that I work with, the Fatimid-Ismaili school. Others work on Aristotle, and his cardinal virtues of justice, temperance, wisdom, and courage are strongly reflected in the early Islamic aphoristic material, and in the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad and Imam Ali. The material my colleagues on the Virtue Scholars team work on is itself fascinating, and the questions and methodologies they bring to bear on it are equally illuminating.

I’m also happy to have the opportunity to present some Islamic approaches to virtue, to these scholars who may not have engaged with the Islamic tradition in any depth before.

A significant prompt that has come out of this workshop for me is a renewed emphasis on the importance of harnessing ideas to promote virtue and happiness on the ground. This is academic work, but it’s also very personal. The research on the hows and whys of a meaningful life discussed at the workshop is really valuable. For me, the natural corollary to the expert analysis is how to translate this information into becoming a better human being myself, and to work toward promoting kindness and virtue in the many communities I’m part of. The research, both individual and collaborative is important. But it’s equally important to think about how to use that practically to be a nice, kind person oneself, and to promote niceness and kindness among the people we live. I’m delighted to be part of this ambitious project, and I hope that together we can make a difference, and offer some contribution to a better and more peaceful world.


Tahera Qutbuddin is Associate Professor of Arabic Literature at the University of Chicago and Scholar with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Virtue Talk podcast: “Universal human virtues” – Tahera Qutbuddin

Click the link below to hear our scholar and Professor of Arabic Literature Tahera Qutbuddin discuss her research and recent books A Treasury of Virtues: Sayings, Sermons, and Teachings of ‘Ali, and Light in the Heavens: Sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, and how her research is impacted by working within our project.

The text of these remarks will be available on our next blog post.

Tahera Qutbuddin | Virtue Talk

Tahera Qutbuddin is Associate Professor of Arabic Literature at the University of Chicago and Scholar with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life. Read more here.

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Tahera Qutbuddin with Fr. Thomas Joseph White at our June 2016 Working Group Meeting.

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December 14, 2016 | Talbot Brewer, “What Good are the Humanities?” | Streaming Live @ University of South Carolina

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Wednesday, December 14, 2016, 5:30pm  | University of South Carolina Law School, 701 Main Street, Columbia

Please join us, or watch livestreamed https://virtue.uchicago.edu/brewer at 5:30 EST/4:30CST.

Talbot Brewer, a professor from the University of Virginia, and a scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life, will speak at 5:30 p.m. at the University of South Carolina in the School of Law auditorium. His talk, titled “What Good are the Humanities?” is part of a research project that brings together scholars from around the world to study the facts that lead to happiness and the meaning of life. The event, which is free and open to the public and includes a reception.

The president of University of South Carolina, Harris Pastides, will deliver an introductory address. A reception will follow the Q & A. Free and open to the public. RSVP requested.

Brewer says it’s not the world’s pace or its constant barrage of words and images that keeps people from finding meaning in literature, art or philosophy. It’s the struggle for people to adjust and sustain their attention and quiet their minds.

“By creating a space within that we can nurture such habits of mind and put them to their proper use, we make room for a kind of self-cultivation that has become increasingly rare, despite all the lip service we pay to authentic self-expression,” says Brewer, a professor and chairman of UVA’s philosophy department and a specialist in ethics, political philosophy and moral psychology.

Connecting with human emotion and the human condition through art, theater or literature can give meaning to one’s own life, Brewer says.

“When pursued in the right spirit, the humanities can deepen one’s experience of life, and that is an enormous gift,” he says.

This event is made possible by a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation for the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life, and co-sponsored by the Center for Value, Law, and the Humanities at the University of South Carolina.

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For more information, contact: Valerie Wallace, Associate Director, Communications
Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life
vwallace@uchicago.edu

Religion and Happiness

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Candace Vogler, at the debate with Jennifer A. Frey and Fr. Thomas Joseph White  on the topic “Happiness without Religion?” at the Catholic Center of NYU in September 2016.

This week we post the three arguments presented at the debate “Happiness Without Religion”, hosted by First Things and the Thomistic Institute at the Catholic Center of NYU. Today is part 3 of 3 featuring Candace Vogler. The accompanying audio of the debate (below) was recorded by the Thomistic Institute.

 

I am doubly disadvantaged in a debate about happiness and religion and what, if anything, the two have to do with one another. First off, the term religion may cover a lot of very different forms of organized human activity, and I don’t know much about most of them. I know something about some forms of Christianity. I know a little about Judaism. I know a little about Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Brazilian syncretic religious practices, a tiny bit about a handful of Native American religious practices, and a very little bit about very small areas of Islam. I don’t know how to give a properly philosophical characterization of the nature of religion that seems applicable to all of these. And so, largely from ignorance, in discussing religion I will have in mind socially organized spiritual practice that tends to be monotheistic, whether or not it operates with a shared body of doctrine and whether or not its practitioners produce theology or philosophy in connection with their religious practices. The second place that I have a hitch is around questions about happiness.

 

Our topic is whether a (presumably mature) human being (presumably with her wits about her) needs religion in order to be happy—at least, happy in her embodied mortal life.

 

Now, happiness, as Philippa Foot once put it, “is a protean concept, appearing now in one way and now in another.”[1] So, having first restricted our constituency to mature and sane human beings, and having restricted my attention to the span between early adulthood and such time at the end of life as might be happy, it helps to try to wrestle happiness into a more definite sort of shape.

 

These days it is common among Anglophone philosophers to distinguish accounts of happiness that treat happiness as a psychological concept—perhaps having to do with positively charged emotional states, or with an overall sense of satisfaction with one’s life, or with a tendency to enjoy things, or with some favored combination of these—from accounts of happiness that stress human flourishing or thriving, which may or may not be associated with contentment or satisfaction, and need not involve any particularly sunny affective or emotional tone. Although thinkers far greater than I have held that people in general pursue happiness, it is not clear what sorts of things might be involved in pursuing happiness understood in any of the usual psychological senses (one worries that the quickest line of pursuit will be pharmacological). Neither is it clear that flourishing accounts are picking out a single sort of target to home in on. Suppose that I think that no one should be satisfied when much of her community is torn by violence and sunk in poverty. Flourishing, I think, will require engaging with my community in ways that are likely to be uncomfortable, unsatisfying, and possibly perilous as well. It could be objected that I have it all wrong about flourishing, but it is hard to deny that mine could be a good human life in the end—a life well-spent; a life well worth living. If so, then people can flourish without having a whole lot of feel-good.

 

In the more distant past, European philosophers have varied wildly in their accounts what happiness might be, on the understanding that happiness is supposed to serve as a name for what makes life good. Health, wealth, honor, sybaritic delight, ethically permissible satisfaction of all and only those of my desires that I welcome, internally peaceful and socially harmonious participation in pursuit of common good, faring well to exactly the extent to which I am acting well—all of these and more have been offered up as the kind of happiness that makes an adult human being’s life good.

 

Some will argue (with Aquinas and Augustine, and Fr. Thomas Joseph White) that health, wealth, honor, and sensual delight cannot possibly be the stuff of the kind of happiness that makes human life good. It has been common to insist that going for these things is a matter of failing to side with reason and become exactly like nonhuman animals. I think it’s a mistake to equate human sensuality with nonhuman animal experience. We should be so lucky! Our sensual lives are not easily separated from our lot as intellectual animals. Be that as it may, we are in the same boat with other animals in at least this sense: the goods of this world are transitory and contingent. According to authoritative sources that I respect, in seeking happiness, we humans seek something stable and lasting that cannot be taken from us.

 

As far as I know, when one is inclined to make this argument one discounts both a venerable Spartan sort of thought about it being a fine thing to go out in a blaze of glory on the battlefield, thereby securing one’s memory for all time, and also the less venerable idea that there’s a lot to be said for living fast and dying young. I am willing to bite those bullets.

 

Sticking to a different, venerable kind of thought, one might ask: What does it profit a man if he wins major athletic competitions (without doping), gains lucrative endorsements, fame, and ample opportunity for pleasure but loses his soul? The answer is supposed to be that it profits him not at all. But it is surely understandable that gaining what counts for someone as “the world” through sustained and persistent effort against significant odds will not look like nothing. And health, wealth, honor, and sensual delight have been human pursuits for a very long time.

 

Worse, if your way of making sense of why it is that people go for anything in a serious way is that they think that they are going for what will bring happiness—a Jeremy Bentham sort of thought that has been re-packaged by some contemporary neo-Aristotelians—then the fact of serious pursuit on the part of many people at least suggests that worldly goods have been the substance of a lot of actual pursuit of happiness. Worse yet, the witnesses to these supposedly vain efforts have not exactly turned away from such things in disgust upon seeing what happens when people get them. Yes—trying to be as shiny and pretty and well-liked as possible for as long as possible is hard work and the passage of time is never your best friend, but that all by itself shouldn’t suggest that people who are pretty and shiny and adored are going for the wrong thing. Serious scholarship, science, and work for social justice also take a lot of time and effort and never feel complete or lasting. That hasn’t made people turn up their noses at these pursuits, even though everyone in these areas knows that they are spending their lives going for stuff has a shelf life and seeking goals that they cannot achieve under their own steam.

 

Now, viewed through the lenses of even the kind of potted histories that I know, any tie that has connected health, wealth, honor, and sensual delight—or science, scholarship, and social justice, for that matter—to religious practice seems at best coincidental. It isn’t impossible that these things might line up. Take bliss, for instance. I could have ecstatic mystic experience that healed my body and brought wealth and honor and knowledge my way and put me in an excellent position to inspire collective work for common good in whichever field of human activity you favor. But I will be dancing in a fool’s paradise if I expect these things to come of my graceful, whirling acts of worship.

 

Let us leave ordinary health, sensuality, intellectual or social pursuits, and the stuff of worldly success to one side (noticing that, in doing so, we rule out things that many people have regarded as crucial for happiness in this life). Allow that, not only does it feel like there has to be more than finding a place for myself in a complex world, more than finding productive and rewarding outlets for my talents, more than any health or wealth or recognition that I might enjoy, more than success, more than friends and family—basically, more than the things that my people take to be worth having. Suppose that there really is more than this. And suppose that I want whatever that more is.

 

Is there a way to the elusive more through religious practice?

 

Obviously, the answer will depend upon the variety of religious practice in question and the character of the elusive more. Take Christianity, for instance. By the lights of the varieties of Christian religious practice familiar to me, it would be a strange thing to turn to Christianity for temporal happiness. In the revealed literature, followers are frequently told to expect to be reviled for their faith. All are charged with obedience to commandments that are hard to obey. All are charged with loving neighbors who are inconvenient and needy. All are expected to fail in doing what they are supposed to do, individually and collectively. And none are supposed to be content with failure. Religious practice is supposed to help nourish and build the faith that anyone will need if she decides to go in for Christianity in a serious way, and, in the early days, at least, there was not an obvious casual way offered for ordinary people who were understandably concerned about the more strenuous side of what was just called the way.

 

Now, I of course agree with Fr. Thomas Joseph that there is a crucial link between this kind of religion and happiness, and that if you accept the points of the linkage, you ought to conclude that it is, in fact, crucial for happiness. I am going to lay out the points a bit differently.

 

  • Human beings are intellectual, social animals and creatures in the first instance.
  • As intellectual, social animals they are, for whatever reason, disordered—what they seek they seek because it appears as a kind of thing it will be good to go for (as something that is good for a human being), their urges and feelings and appetites want to be reasonable, but rarely are; they want their lives, individually and socially, to make a kind of sense that lives rarely do; they cannot live long or well without significant social cooperation; they often find themselves at odds with their fellows; even when they agree that a way of addressing social tensions is desirable, they need not share a vision about how to order their social lives and pursuits to make things better.
  • As creatures, they have deep need not only to make sense of themselves, their lives, and each other, not only to find ways of discerning and pursuing genuine human good and avoiding what is genuinely bad—that is, to be right with themselves and right with each other on however large or small a scale you care to mention—but also to be right with the divine source of their lives and world.
  • Religious practice aims at providing established channels for helping people be right with themselves, with each other, and with divinity. Sound religious practice provides channels through which to pursue harmony in all of these relations but, insofar as religious practices are human institutions carried, held, transmitted, and engaged by human beings, they are not free of the kinds of disorder that marks human life generally.
  • For all that, religion is what we have to pursue the kind of harmony with each other and divinity that is a core human need, and seeking happiness in some way that cuts divinity out of the picture is going to be seeking one or another kind of fulfillment that will leave the spiritual need unsatisfied.

 

Basically, if you do not think that there is a core need to be right with divinity built into human life, and you notice that religious practice can be very hard and can make you unpopular, it is hard to see the link between religion and happiness, at least in terms of the varieties of religious practice I have encountered.

 

So you’ll notice that I am with Fr. Thomas Joseph and Aquinas, but with a couple of caveats for folks who are turned away from seeing any role for an essential tie to the sacred or divine in human life.

 

[1] Philippa Foot, Natural Goodness, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001), p. 97.

 Listen to a recording of this event’s arguments and critiques on the Thomistic Institute’s SoundCloud.


Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and Director and Principal Investigator for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

No Happiness without Religion (and even only imperfect happiness with true Religion)

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Fr. Thomas Joseph White, Jennifer A. Frey; debating with Candace Vogler (not pictured) the topic “Happiness without Religion?” at the Catholic Center of NYU in September 2016.

This week we post the three arguments presented at the debate “Happiness Without Religion”, hosted by First Things and the Thomistic Institute at the Catholic Center of NYU. Today is part 2 of 3 featuring Fr. Thomas Joseph White. The accompanying audio of the debate was recorded by the Thomistic Institute.

 

Consider the non-rational animals. Can they be said to be happy or unhappy? In an analogical sense, yes, insofar as they experience wellbeing of a physical or even emotional sort. Augustine notes that the non-rational animals “desire nothing beyond the proper arrangement of the parts of the body and the satisfaction of the appetites, [that is to say] bodily comfort and the [right measure of] pleasures, that the peace of the body might contribute to the peace of the soul…Animals, by shunning pain, show that they love bodily peace…their shrinking from death is a sufficient indication of their intense love of that peace which binds soul and body in close alliance.” (City of God XIX, 14) And of course we might add with Aristotle that they instinctively desire the good of their species, and seek to perpetuate it. This form of happiness may be modest but it is real, just as living things that are not human are real and are subject to flourishing.

 

We are different from these creatures because we avidly pursue happiness, through rational deliberation, even in all our free actions. This is different from saying that we understand well what happiness is, or know well how to procure it. Augustine underscores how fragile human happiness is in this world: Elusive, ephemeral and limited. On the one hand our desire for happiness is inextinguishable and vivid. On the other hand, it is often a source of disquiet or even torment. The desire for happiness frequently gives rise to serious disappointment. It can even humiliate us as we become worried or convinced that we have failed in life to be genuinely happy, whereas others have succeeded.

 

So the desire to be happy and appear happy gives rise to various forms of ambition and self-deception. Augustine notes that we tell ourselves and others lies, or half truths about how we happy we really are, and that we seek to demonstrate this through various mediums, from philosophical arguments to external postures, like Facebook posts or annual family Christmas letters. [No one ever writes in the annual Christmas letter, “This year Alice had a serious operation and had to confront for the first time her genuine fear of death. She is currently anti-anxiety medication and is in counseling.”] Instead, we take refuge in the public vanities of career or the accomplishments of children, of the private distractions of pleasure and leisure, claiming that we have fulfilled the canonical obligations that make us successfully happy. We settle for too little, and conceal our deeper unresolved-frustrations. This act of self-deception in fact suggests a profound form of self-antipathy, or self-refusal, insofar as we resist confronting our deeper more genuinely fractured selves.

 

Blaise Pascal writes about the positive benefits of admitting the deep imperfection and limits of our happiness in this world. Our failure to find anything other than very imperfect, unsatisfying forms of happiness in creatures is the negative side of very good news. If we admit this truth, we can begin to acknowledge the possibility of genuine happiness with God. Pascal argues in response to Montagne that the religionist is not the person who is naïve and escapist, but the only person who is actually in the end being a realist. We do genuinely wish to be happy, so let us be realists, and long for something we can actually have: life with God, and friendship with God. This is an existential possibility, by the grace of Christ, and it can endure forever, because God is eternal, and the soul is immaterial and lives on after death.

 

Of course here we might cough politely like Prufrock, and think quietly to ourselves: “that is not realistic. That is not worth the risk.” Or by contrast, we might briefly consider Aquinas’ version of this Augustinian argument.

 

Negatively Aquinas argues thus, in summary form: Wealth cannot be what makes us happy, because we procure wealth as a means not an end. Wealth provides a horizon of possibilities, but forces us to ask anew: ok, now what do we do with our money? Glory and fame cannot make us happy. They are radically contingent goods that by their very nature are transitory, and unstable. To be famous you need other people to agree to look at you a certain way continually, so as to procure satisfaction for your vanity or self-love. The problem is they might stop paying attention to you at any moment. (This is why famous people need twitter accounts.) Power is not a good candidate, because power is morally indifferent. A person can have a great deal of power, and do great wickedness with it. So it is like wealth: more a means than an end.

 

 Listen to a recording of this event’s arguments and critiques on the Thomistic Institute’s SoundCloud.

 

What about the physical good of the body? Will the perfect diet and exercise routine finally make me happy? No, for if that were the case people would be content simply with being healthy and no healthy person would be unhappy. This is clearly not the case. What about pleasure as the source of happiness? Ah, pleasure! Now that seems like a good candidate. Pleasures make us happy. Yes, but here Aquinas qualifies. Pleasures of the senses give temporary joy and rest to our sensate animal life, our felt psychology, you might say. But human beings also aspire to other forms of goods that are not simply sensible: friendship, love and appreciation, justice, and also truth, authentic perspective on the meaning of things, artistic skill, and practical wisdom. So reducing all of that down to sensate pleasures is not just un-reasonable; it’s impossible.

 

This means we are getting close–true happiness consists in the stable possession of various forms of authentic goods, like those just listed: true friendship, a life of personal love, justice etc. This is a life of virtue, toward which the health of the body and the pleasures of senses can oriented, as when parents nourish their children (as one animal to another) but do so motivated by personal love as well as a sense of justice. Notice what we need to make appeals to happiness: a certain intensity of human flourishing and a certain stability of possession, and to have an authentic good and have it in a lasting way. But what such higher good or goods can we pursue virtuously that really provide us with genuine lasting happiness, a happiness that will really satiate our desires, so that we are not subject to misery? Friendship? Marriage? Career? Children? Aquinas says: No, none of these really grants us either sufficient intensity of fulfillment or perennial possession, that is to say stable freedom from systemic disenchantment. He even concludes that no created good really suffices in the end. And this is very good news.

 

The reason has to do with the positive side of Aquinas’ argument. The human animal is different from the other animals because we have a spiritual intellect. That is to say, we are open to the universal horizon of being, to all that exists. Likewise we are also capable of loving all that is exists insofar as it is in some way good. This argument has several steps but basically Aquinas argues that if we are able to know and love all finite being, this is because on a deeper level we are open intellectually not only to what is finite but also the transcendent and infinite, God the author of all that exists. God is the perfectly intensive infinite good, and since we are structurally capax dei, or capable of God, we are likewise structurally incapable of ever being fully satisfied by the finite good.

 

To conclude we might note a final objection: I cannot cross the abyss that stands between me and the unsolvable enigma of God, if God exists. Given this fact, the desire for God is a pointless want. Smart people confine themselves to the humble cell of agnosticism. To which the follower of Christ responds: No, that is not true. The human being can come to know God by grace, and in grace, can come to recognize true happiness, or the invitation to true happiness, which begins in friendship with God, the love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. The contemplative discovery of God is the beginning of true peace that gives genuine rest to the soul. That is a religious answer to a philosophical question. But of course, if human beings cannot achieve their true happiness without God, then the religious answer is precisely what is needed.

 

“If we were irrational animals, we should desire nothing beyond the proper arrangement of the parts of the body and the satisfaction of the appetites,— nothing, therefore, but bodily comfort and [a right measure] of pleasures, that the peace of the body might contribute to the peace of the soul.…Animals, by shunning pain, show that they love bodily peace, and…their shrinking from death is a sufficient indication of their intense love of that peace which binds soul and body in close alliance. But, as man has a rational soul, he subordinates all this which he has in common with the beasts to the peace of his rational soul, that his intellect may have free play and may regulate his actions, and that he may thus enjoy the well-ordered harmony of knowledge and action which constitutes, as we have said, the peace of the rational soul. And for this purpose he must desire to be neither molested by pain, nor disturbed by desire, nor extinguished by death, that he may arrive at some useful knowledge by which he may regulate his life and manners. But, owing to the liability of the human mind to fall into mistakes, this very pursuit of knowledge may be a snare to him unless he has a divine Master, whom he may obey without misgiving, and who may at the same time give him such help as to preserve his own freedom. And because, so long as he is in this mortal body, he is a stranger to God, he walks by faith, not by sight; and he therefore refers all peace, bodily or spiritual or both, to that peace which mortal man has with the immortal God, so that he exhibits the well-ordered obedience of faith to eternal law.” Augustine, City of God, XIX, c. 14.

“But, in that final peace to which all our righteousness has reference, and for the sake of which it is maintained, as our nature shall enjoy a sound immortality and incorruption, and shall have no more vices, and as we shall experience no resistance either from ourselves or from others, it will not be necessary that reason should rule vices which no longer exist, but God shall rule the man, and the soul shall rule the body, with a sweetness and facility suitable to the felicity of a life which is done with bondage. And this condition shall there be eternal, and we shall be assured of its eternity; and thus the peace of this blessedness and the blessedness of this peace shall be the supreme good.” Augustine, City of God, XIX, c. 27

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210: The last act is tragic, however happy all the rest of the play is; at the last a little earth is thrown upon our head, and that is the end for ever.

257: There are only three kinds of persons; those who serve God, having found Him; others who are occupied in seeking Him, not having found Him; while the remainder live without seeking Him, and without having found Him. The first are reasonable and happy, the last are foolish and unhappy; those between are unhappy and reasonable.

438: If man is not made for God, why is he only happy in God? If man is made for God, why is he so opposed to God?

540: None is so happy as a true Christian, nor so reasonable, virtuous, or amiable.

785: Jesus Christ is an obscurity (according to what the world calls obscurity), such that historians, writing only of important matters of states, have hardly noticed Him.

Pascal, Pensees

Here is a place of disaffection
Time before and time after
In a dim light: neither daylight
Investing form with lucid stillness
Turning shadow into transient beauty
With slow rotation suggesting permanence
Nor darkness to purify the soul
Emptying the sensual with deprivation
Cleansing affection from the temporal.
Neither plentitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.
Eructation of unhealthy souls
Into the faded air, the torpid
Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London,
Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,
Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here
Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.

From T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton


Fr. Thomas Joseph White is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology, Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies, and Scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

A Framework for Secular Happiness

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(L to R) Candace Vogler, Fr. Thomas Joseph White, Jennifer A. Frey; debating the topic “Happiness without Religion?” at the Catholic Center of NYU in September 2016.

This week we post the three arguments presented at the debate “Happiness Without Religion”, hosted by First Things and the Thomistic Institute at the Catholic Center of NYU. Today is part 1 of 3 and features Jennifer A. Frey. The accompanying audio of the debate (below) was recorded by the Thomistic Institute.

Our question is, “Can we have happiness without religion?” It’s not a perennial question, as secularism is a relatively new-fangled way of thinking and living for human beings. But it is a question for us—especially those of us living in North America and Europe, where “none” is the second largest religious affiliation, an affiliation whose numbers continue to grow as more traditional ones decline. It’s also a deeply practical and existential question that affects how we organize our lives and understand ourselves. Obviously I am not going to give a definitive answer this afternoon, but I would like to provide something like a framework for addressing the question, and I’ll tentatively put forward the claim that there is such a thing as non-trivial, relatively stable happiness for secular people of goodwill, and that this sort of happiness will seem to these people to suffice given their other beliefs and commitments about humans and their place in the natural world.

 

Furthermore, I think it’s relatively easy to see that this secular happiness is genuinely worth pursuing, and we can say of the persons who manage to attain such happiness that they are good and decent people who are living well on the whole. Whether such persons are living the best sort of human life possible is not a question I will attempt to answer, since any true answer will depend on whether God really does exist (not my topic, thankfully). My claim is more limited, but still worth insisting upon: We can say that secular people might be robustly happy without having to say that they are the happier than religious people, or that theirs is the happiest sort of life imaginable.

In order to argue for this position, I first need to get clear about our basic terms. Let’s start with religion, and I what I don’t mean by it.

 

First, I don’t mean organized religion in the sense that picks out a body of doctrine and practice that is established and enforced by some hierarchical or bureaucratic form of institutional management or control.  Second, I don’t mean religion in the sense that picks out some comprehensive philosophical or theological doctrine that attempts to answer questions lie, “How ought I to live?” or “What should I believe?” or “What is the meaning of life?”   Third, I don’t mean religion as an object of speculative inquiry, as we encounter it in the secular university, especially in departments of religious studies, psychology, or anthropology. And finally, I don’t mean religion to refer to quasi-mystical experiences of the ineffable or the transcendent—the stuff of backpacking trips in the mountains where one feels at peace with the universe or connected to all things.

 

I have no quarrel with these uses of the term ‘religion’—they are perfectly legitimate and familiar. I just happen to find them useless for addressing our question so I want to set them aside.

 

Instead, I want to focus on religion in a less familiar but I think ultimately important sense: as a virtue that is defined by certain acts that render what is due to the source of all being—i.e., God—grasped under the description, the “first principle of creation.” (ST II-II 81.a3) Religion in this sense is sometimes called “true religion,” and was classically understood as a moral virtue whose intelligibility came from shared practices of worship and devotion.

 

Talking about religion as a virtue is important to our question, since I take it that the virtues are necessary for any genuine, relatively stable, non-trivial sense of human happiness. The philosophical tradition that I spend my time defending (the broadly Aristotelian tradition) treats virtue as a stable disposition to act in certain ways that make its possessor good by making his actions good. The virtues perfect a man’s natural human powers, thereby allowing him to attain genuine human goods in common with others—goods such as family, friendships, and knowledge—and in attaining these goods to live well and experience happiness.

   Continue reading “A Framework for Secular Happiness”

Higher Education in a Wider Context – part 2

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“Ida Noyes Cloister” – photo by Chris Smith

In my last post, I ended with several questions about the purpose of higher education, and the relationship of higher education to human flourishing:

What is the point of seeking higher education in the United States these days?

What are we meant to be providing for our students?

What should they have when they compete their degrees that they did not have when they first matriculated?

The most obvious answers to these questions are not, I think, especially helpful to us. For example, reasonably stable statistics suggest that for most—but not all—people earning a four-year college degree will increase income-earning potential. The degree is a requirement for a better-paying job than one can get with a high school diploma (or its equivalent).

 

Notice that it is not obvious why this is the case. Some people think that the degree demonstrates to potential employers that the student can succeed in sticking to a course of study, has some experience with whatever level of self-discipline is required to show up for classes often enough, and, if her transcript is strong, has met some serious standards of assessment for work along the way. In addition, the person who completes her degree program and emerges with a strong transcript will have undergone important socialization outside the confines of her family. The university is a sheltered sort of larger world, but a larger world nonetheless, and, in the course of learning to live and work in the little larger world, the successful undergraduate will have developed at least some new interests and become involved in some sorts of groups or community activities that help to prepare her to take part in a larger sort of larger world.

 

If that’s all that we are doing for our students, if that’s all that they take away from our work with them, then we are failing them and failing to understand the kind of opportunity we have in higher education. Who are these people—our prospective and actual students? Many of them are young adults, sometimes away from home for the first time, often anxious, often hopeful, and almost inevitably at a crucial point in their lives where they are beginning to make the decisions and take the actions that will open or close the doors on how they will live after they leave us. They sometimes are full of questions about ethics or politics. If they think that all those questions have been answered for them long ago, they may be moving around in a perilous place with brittle conviction in an environment that, at its best, will at least ask that they have something to say on behalf of what they have come to take for granted. Some are entering our institutions or returning to such institutions after having been at work or at war.

 

Whether they are new to us or familiar with higher education, they may have very little experience with genuine educational moments. Genuine educational moments are necessarily alarming and destabilizing. In a genuine educational experience, one finds that a thing one has simply accepted or taken for granted wobbles. Educational experience disrupts one’s sense of mastery.

 

This is obviously true when one is learning higher mathematics or formal logic or a new language. By definition, advancing in a new language or learning a new formal system requires learning—usually through the wretched process of making mistake after mistake until the thing becomes more habitual, and it is possible to innovate a little—make a new sentence; figure out the sort of equation one needs in order to cope with the engineering problem; locate what’s broken in the program and fix it. In these fields the subject matter itself provides some of the standards one has to meet in order to do well. But a question ought to haunt students who are busily acquiring technical competence or linguistic ability. That question ought to be: to what end? Why should I go through the torture of learning German or Latin or organic chemistry or real analysis? Why should anyone subject herself to such discipline at all when you’d have to be mad to be incapable of imagining a more pleasant way of spending an hour or two this afternoon?

 

If the answer is something like ‘because I need to do well in organic chemistry in order to get into medical school,’ or ‘I have to know German in order to take the kind of position I want with a multi-national firm based in Hamburg, or else to do doctoral work in art history, say, or some area of history or philosophy,’ then, I think, the ‘Why?’-question ought to re-appear. And why go on with those things?

 

My disappointed, restless, demoralized and self-actualized thirty-somethings did not ask that second set of ‘Why?’ questions. All of them hold good degrees. Nothing in their academic careers demonstrated to them, or even asked of them, very much about the point of what they were learning. None of them were in an educational setting where it was as natural as reading or breathing or completing a homework assignment to attend to the way in which their academic work was meant to suit them to participate in a larger common good. Not just to give them new things to be interested in or to puzzle about. Not just to get them over a hurdle that they had to cross in order to try to clear the next hurdle. Rather, to give them something that could make it possible for them to be a source of good in the lives of people they will never invite over to dinner and will never meet at the interval at the opera.

 

In my line of work, people are often made very anxious by the suggestion that there needs to be a special point to our teaching and our research. We sometimes think that any suggestion that we ought to have something to say on this score threatens to reduce the grandeur of the life of the mind—an especially high and serious sort of calling for our sort of animal; the sort of thing that makes a human being more important than a really wonderful dog (even when the dog’s company is more pleasant)—to reduce the value of what we do to some grubby instrumental sort of affair belonging to the shabby business of getting and spending rather than the higher calling of truth and beauty and goodness.

 

I am all in favor of truth and beauty and goodness. I tend to think that genuine attachments to truth and beauty and goodness are attachments to common human good. These attachments are inexhaustible.   My attachments to these can never exclude yours. Yours can never damage mine. When all goes well, mine instead enrich yours, and yours mine. And provided that we are honest and fair, and have the sort of humility that belongs to such matters properly understood, we can all seek a share in truth and beauty and goodness. I don’t think that such an aspiration is the kind of thing that allows for the cultivation of a big ego, actually. Again, properly governed, the self shrinks in the face of such things.

 

For all that, I tend to be pretty flat-footed about the daily business of higher education. Whatever subject I am teaching, my aim is to understand my classroom as a community gathered together for the sake of having and sharing an important educational experience—focused on the books or passages or films or images that we confront, and entering these things as human cultural materials produced in the face of genuine questions about what it is to be human, and how one ought to live. The silent partner in most of my classrooms is Aquinas. He taught me to understand that every student I have is there because they want to pursue something good, or avoid something bad. He taught me that they all have a basic grasp of what is good or bad in human life, even if almost none of them can articulate it. He taught me that we are all of us intellectual animals, and that, for us, it takes work to develop harmonious thought and feeling, desire and action, in order to pursue good reasonably and avoid bad appropriately. And he taught me that, even when one has a measure of wisdom in these matters, the ethical remains challenging. To put it bluntly, by the lights of this Catholic thinker, having a full measure of acquired wisdom—a good character, properly virtuous dispositions, and so on—will not obviate the need to go to confession. There still will be things that we do and fail to do, say and fail to say, think and fail to think, that we will have good reason to regret on reflection. And, for all of that, our bits are made to work together reasonably and harmoniously, even if almost none of us ever quite manages to live an entirely well-ordered life.

 

In higher education we are charged with helping our students learn to prepare for productive futures as creatures oriented to participation in larger common good—whether that is the good of the neighborhood, the good of the firm, the good of one’s patients or clients. In a culture that seems overwhelmingly directed to self-enhancement, self-expression, self-actualization, affluence, power, winning, and success, we have to help them to see what they do from a higher vantage point. We have to help them be alert to the people around them, even if only those people in the classroom. We have to help them see themselves as charged not just with getting whatever they might be able to get from us that could give them a clear path gainful employment after they leave us, but to recognize the larger goods and potential pitfalls at issue in any path to gainful employment they might pursue.

 

In this sense, I think, the height of higher education is better measured by the wider context in which we work. And, since, as near as I can tell, human beings are made for orientation to common good—again, on however small or grand a scale—I think that this is not nearly as abstract or difficult as it might seem from my words about truth and goodness and beauty. We can count on this in one another, whether or not we know it. And those of us who have faith in God can rely on Him for some help.

 

I promised to tall you two stories. The second is an extracurricular story about a garden.

 

My husband and I live on the south side of Chicago in a mixed income neighborhood not far from the Lake where many children live in poverty and many adults struggle to make ends meet. My husband and I have colonized the large vacant lot next to our building and made of it a park-like community garden. I have a big flower border, because flowers feed everybody. We have a community herb bed, and a vegetable garden that provides a lot of neighborhood folks with greens and cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers, carrots and beets all summer long. There is a stand of mulberry trees at one spot, and my husband built a low, very solid, very good treehouse in the largest of them with steps leading up to the big deck. The kids play on that lot all summer, and we made the treehouse for them. But, partly because the garden is the nicest place to be anywhere in the immediate vicinity, shortly after the treehouse was up, older kids started hanging out in the treehouse after dark on the weekends. Many belonged to what we call “street organizations,” but what you most likely know as “gangs.” The neighbors across the alley were in an uproar over this. They insisted that the treehouse had to come down. Of course, taking it down would have meant getting rid of the best and safest place to play during the day for scores of children.

 

So my husband started praying about it. We went back over basic Aquinas on human nature—how everyone has natural reason; how everyone wants to be toward good and away from bad…those things. And one night, when the treehouse has more than the usual crowd of armed folks using drugs and hanging out, my husband baked a big batch of chocolate chip cookies and headed out to the treehouse with two plates of cookies and a mission.

 

“We have to talk,” he said, offering them cookies.

 

And they talked. He explained that he understood that there were no jobs for them in our neighborhood and that they were in the underground economy for good reasons. But, he pointed out, their work put them at big risks of being victims of drive-by-shootings. “It would break my heart,” he said, “to find myself out here cleaning your blood off this treehouse.”

 

They have to make a living. No question there. But the garden is not the place for that activity. It is not even a place to use drugs.

 

They talked a long time. He explained that he was under pressure to dismantle to treehouse, and what that would cost the kids who played there all day. That it would cost the older kids a place to hang out in the early evening as well.

 

And they agreed.

 

Then they talked about cussing. My husband explained that he was, himself, a writer, and had very high regard for verbal artistry. He praised their impromptu, virtuoso skill with language. And allowed as how there had to be places to do their art. But, again, the garden was not that place. There were children. There were old people. It was important to make this very good place a special place where what passed between people was gentle and kind.

 

And they agreed.

 

That was three years ago. No one sells drugs from the garden. No one uses drugs in the garden. No one cusses loudly and at length in the garden. (Of course a bad word or two will leak out if someone, say, hits his thumb with a hammer or something.) Everyone recognizes the garden as a safe, beautiful place made to for anyone who wants to visit. We still have kids who throw tomatoes. We still have little ones who get in tussles and accidentally run over new beds sometimes. The youngest of this season’s local children still are children. But no one has any problem with the treehouse.

 

The local leaders of what we call “street organizations” are fully capable of hearing a call to preserve and protect a garden, and of changing course for the sake of common good.

 

If we can do this with a small band of armed drug dealers on the south side of Chicago, what does it say about us if we are unwilling to teach our students to locate their studies in a developing awareness of the good at stake in what we teach them? How are we seeing these beings if we do not think that they arrive hungry for ways of directing themselves to a larger good than a future paycheck?

 

Of course we have to attend to the future paycheck. I grew up in a scrappy world where future paychecks were tremendously important, and I had tenure before I finished paying off my student loans. But I was in the process of finding a vocation in addition to getting a degree with no expectation that it would turn into a job. And that eye toward the higher thing is what made it all worthwhile.

 


Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and Director and Principal Investigator for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.