Episode 15 Sacred and Profane Love: Faustian Ambitions

In episode 15 of Sacred and Profane Love, titled, “Faustian Ambitions,” I speak with my colleague and neighbor, Professor Anne Pollok, about Johann  Wolfgang von Goethe’s famous tragedy, Faust.  For the purposes of our conversation, we use the Norton Critical Edition, translated by Walter Arndt and edited by Cyrus Hamlin, which is available here.  Goethe’s drama deals with the infinite striving that lies at the heart of the human condition, and how our quest for the transcendent can go terribly awry.


Anne Pollok is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina.  She did her Dr. Phil at the Martin Luther University in Halle-Wittenberg, and was a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at Stanford University prior to her appointment at UofSC.  Her main areas of research are in early modern, aesthetics, and 20th century philosophy of culture.


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 Ph.D. 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.  She has published widely on action, virtue, practical reason, and meta-ethics, and has recently co-edited an interdisciplinary volume, Self-Transcendence and Virtue: Perspectives from Philosophy, Theology, and Psychology


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This podcast is generously supported by The Institute for Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America.

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



Episode 14: Walker Percy on Being Lost in the Cosmos

In episode 14 of Sacred and Profane Love, “Walker Percy on Being Lost in the Cosmos,” I speak with associate professor of Literature, Jessica Hooten Wilson, about Walker Percy’s dystopian, science fiction novel, Love in the Ruins.  We discuss the darkly comic adventures of Dr. Tom More as he tries to figure out how to live and love in the ruins of a society that seems eerily familiar to our own.  We also discuss Percy’s satirical take on the self-help genre, Lost in the Cosmos.  So bring out the Early Times this weekend, settle down on the porch, and enjoy a conversation about one of our greatest Southern writers.

Jessica Hooten Wilson is associate professor of literature at John Brown University.  She is the author of three books: Giving the Devil his Due: Flannery O’Connor and the Brothers Karamazov, Walker Percy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the Search for Influence, and A Guide to Walker Percy’s Novels. Currently, she is preparing Flannery O’Connor’s unfinished novel,Why Do the Heathen Rage? for publication.


This podcast is generously supported by the Institute for Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America. 

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

Living the Truth

Last week I was honored to give two lectures on Anscombe at the University of Pennsylvania–one for the Collegium Institute, which is embedded below, and one for he philosophy department, which hosted its first Anscombe archive conference.  You can read about the Collegium here, and how they acquired Anscome’s archive here.  If you are in the Philadephia area, you should definitely make a point of attending some of their public events.

I spent about three hours in the Anscombe archive last Thursday.  For me, it was an incredible experience that I am still processing, not only because of how exciting some of the unpublished material is (an entire manuscript on truth!), but also because it was a unique window into Anscombe’s private life.  I read a long philosophical exchange (on postcards!) between Anscombe and Kenny as he was losing his faith and she was trying to bring him back.  I read a letter from Philippa Foot to Anscombe explaining why she was an atheist.  I read some of her “hate mail” after her opposition to Truman became international news (yes, it had some undeniable misogynist overtones). I read her marginalia on drafts of NNL papers (yes, it is funny and sometimes unkind).  Finally, I read a letter from a Japanese victim of US war crimes that brought me to tears (he was writing from his hospital bed, describing what happened to him and his loved ones).  As someone who has long admired Elizabeth Anscombe, sorting through all of this was an incredible experience, and I’m currently drafting a proposal to make several return trips.


For some thoughts about Anscombe’s relevance to all of us today, see the lecture below.



What is Paris without her Cathedral?

My reflections on the fire in Paris are now published in The Point Magazine.  You can read the full piece on their site.

Here are some excerpts:

“Stepping inside the Notre Dame is a bit like stepping outside of ordinary time and space. The immense verticality of the entire structure, illuminated from outside through light refracted in the colors of the stained glass, isn’t accidental in its immediate effects on our consciousness. We are meant to experience our own smallness relative to its vastness; we are meant to be drawn upwards towards the light pouring in from all sides, and to recognize it as symbolic of an external revelation that illuminates and transfigures our minds and hearts. Her rose windows are meant to be occasions to contemplate the mysteries of human life—birth, love, sex, death—and the nature of eternity. As we enter, we are meant to feel deep in our hearts a yearning for that which is greater than ourselves; if we do not experience this awe and wonder, or stop to contemplate the depths of these mysteries, we have missed something of the structure’s essential intent.

In noting its essential meaning, I certainly do not wish to deny that one can marvel at it simply as an architectural achievement, or at its historical significance for France—these are clear aspects of its universal appeal. At the same time, there is something abstracted about this posture that does not quite touch the depths of emotions even secular people report of their own experiences inside it. The truth is that the Notre Dame cannot be reduced to a “monument to civilization” or “architectural wonder” or “historical landmark”; there is a definitive truth it aims to help visitors encounter. The Notre Dame was and still is a cathedral of the Catholic Church, wherein sacrifices, confessions, and prayers to God are made every day; the entire edifice is therefore designed to draw out our deep longing for union with an absolutely transcendent truth, goodness and beauty. A posture of detached observation and mere appreciation stands in tension with any experience of it as what it essentially is. Mere abstractions do not pierce the human heart.”



















Podcast featured on APA blog

First and foremost, I apologize for the dearth of posts lately.  I had to take a medical leave this semester (yes, I was very sick; and yes, I am fine now) and as a result all non-essential activities (as well as some essential activities) were sacrificed.  But I’m happy to be back online to share some news about the podcast.

Second, I have a new institutional partner and affiliation!  Although I am still releasing a few episodes over the coming months with support from the John Templeton Foundation, going forward next year it will be underwritten by The Institute for Human Ecology, which is a research institute housed at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. The IHE is a multi-disciplinary institute that supports work focused on questions about the nature of human flourishing, so it fits well with my own work.  The IHE has made me a faculty fellow and will continue to support the podcast for as long as it continues to have a loyal following.

Third, the blog has recently been featured on the American Philosophical Association’s blog.  You can read the whole blog post here.  One thing this post does is finally explain my choice of image for the podcast’s logo.


Here’s an excerpt from the blog post:

“The logo features a striking image of a battle between divine and earthly love by the Roman artist Giovanni Baglione. Baglione’s painting makes explicit reference to a famous depiction of Cupid by his contemporary Caravaggio, titled amor vincit omnia. In Caravaggio’s painting, Cupid towers triumphantly over the scattered symbols of human striving, clutching his arrows with an impish grin. The title of Caravaggio’s famous piece comes from Virgil’s Eclogues; the full quote it references is “omnia vincit amor; et nos cedamus amori,” which is often translated as, “love conquers all; let us all yield to love.” Although we now associate this phrase with the romantic platitude that only love can overcome all obstacles and divisions, Virgil’s words come from the mouth of the heart sick Gallus, who is conquered by love (Gallus, in anguish from eros unsatisfied, kills himself after uttering these famous last words).

Baglione is playing with these themes in his painting; he responds to Caravaggio’s playful Cupid with a piece that depicts the superior power and triumph of divine over earthly love. Baglione’s image is not hard to interpret, but it has a deeper meaning; Baglione is speaking toCaravaggio directly in his painting—in fact, he is attacking and provoking him (note that the devil’s face bears a non-accidental resemblance to Caravaggio). Baglione and Caravaggio were bitter rivals in the competitive world of Roman art. Although Baglione knowingly imitates Caravaggio’s distinctive style, his admiration is tinged with a jealous envy of Caravaggio’s manifestly superior talent and fame. The painting is (no doubt unintentionally) simultaneously a representation of the triumph of sacred love and a testament to the potential for profane love to lead us into folly and ruin. For it is Baglione’s worldly ambition—his craving for recognition and power as an artist—that creates the bitter resentment and jealousy that constitutes the painting’s deeper meaning. Ironically, Baglione’s depiction of the ultimate triumph of sacred love announces to the world that its creator has been conquered by profane ambition; in attempting to accuse Caravaggio, Baglione unwittingly implicates himself. 

I love Baglione’s painting because it captures the central thrust of my podcast in deliciously ironic fashion, which is to explore the relation between love, virtue, happiness, and life’s purpose or meaning. In each episode we explore how and what we love can conquer in two distinct senses: when well-ordered through the cultivation of virtue, love can help us to conquer ourselves so that we can lead deeply happy lives, but when disordered, love can conquer us, by making us jealous, wrathful, selfish, lustful, and overcome with despair. Moreover, the layers of meaning in the painting—intended and unintended—brings out the fact that we bring our own lives to art, whether as creators or consumers. As someone who thinks of art as a central aspect of human experience, I am interested in the fact that how we look at and interpret art determines how we are affected by it, and how this, in turn, is inevitably bound up in our own life experience; this interpretive and affective dynamic includes most especially our own experiences of passionate desire—its perils and its promise, its profane and sacred dimensions. It is the power of the artist’s representation of love to transform us in a deep and permanent way that interests me—how art potentially shapes our character by changing our imaginative landscape, thereby helping to shape how we ourselves think, feel, and desire.

I have talked about art and morality, but my podcast focuses on literature in particular. I wanted to turn to literature because I believe that it is a very specific mode of access to the truth, especially moral truth. Whereas philosophical theory operates at the level of the abstract and general, literature operates in the particular and the concrete. So, while the philosopher can demonstrate the essential structure of vice, the novelist can show us how vice works to destroy the life of a particular person in a particular way. The novelist operates, not at the level of judgment and belief, but at the level of imagination and perception, which brings us closer to the realm of personal choice and action. I also think that literature is one of the best sources for our knowledge of human nature, which I think is a kind of general self-knowledge. Fiction expands the moral imagination such that we see reflections of ourselves and our own lives in the characters we come to invest ourselves in; in this way it often serves to reveal to us some uncomfortable truths about ourselves. This recognition can serve to correct some of our deep-seated tendencies towards self-deception.”

I’ve got upcoming episodes on Goethe’s Faust and Shakespeare’s King Lear, so fans of the podcast–especially those who take the time to write to me about it–thanks for your patience and stay tuned for new episodes soon!


Elizabeth Anscombe at 100


Today marks the centenary of one of the truly great minds of the twentieth century: Elizabeth Anscombe.  This mother of seven, and wife of philosopher Peter Geach, authored some of the most influential papers in analytic philosophy; she made groundbreaking contributions to moral philosophy, action theory, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and the history of philosophy.

Happy Anscombe day, everyone!  To celebrate, I am posting a few recent lectures of mine on her work, as well as an advertisement for an upcoming talk in honor of her centenary at the University of Pennsylvania, which now houses the Anscombe archive, and is hosting a major academic conference in her honor.