Courage, Camaraderie, and Survival


This week marks the 71st anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz camps by the Red Army. The stories told by survivors are studies in human courage. Elie Weisel’s memoir about the erosion of human values among inmates of Auschwitz and Buchenwald as a result of Nazi brutality, Night, asks whether it is even possible for a virtuous person to understand the horror of the Holocaust: “Could men and women who consider it normal to assist the weak, to heal the sick, to protect small children, and to respect the wisdom of their elders understand what happened there? Would they be able to comprehend how, within that cursed universe, the masters tortured the weak and massacred the children, the sick, and the old?”


Weisel’s question asks us to consider whether virtuous people can understand evil, but it also asks us to consider how a world where virtuous norms have existed for centuries could have produced and tolerated such horrors. His implied answer—that sustained brutality turns even the most caring person into a selfish, angry survivor—is belied by the many instances of courageous generosity he documents. Despite the threat of death, many of the prisoners in Night still warn each other of immanent threat, pass along crucial information to newcomers, share strategies of survival, and keep others focused on the common good. One Polish prisoner in charge of a cellblock takes it upon himself to rally the disheartened inmates, exhorting them to look beyond themselves for comfort and strength: “[L]et there be camaraderie among you. We are all brothers and share the same fate. The same smoke hovers over all our heads. Help each other. That is the only way to survive.”


But helping each other in such circumstances demands enormous courage. Courage—one of the cardinal virtues, according to Aquinas—is required not only to overcome the fears that might keep us from achieving our goals, but also to restrain us from recklessly pursuing them. The problem with this, of course, is that it is hard to know the difference between wise restraint and cowardly self-interest. Weisel is haunted in Night by his fear that self-interest kept him from his father’s side as he lay dying. He feels horribly guilty because, afraid that the Nazi beating his father will also beat him, he ignores his father’s call. His last image of looking in a mirror after the liberation of the camps and seeing a corpse looking back at him reflects his fear that the horrors he has endured have made him a creature evacuated of all humanity, a mere survivor.


How do we keep from being mere survivors? How do we know when we are acting for ourselves alone, or acting so we might live another day and make the world better?


As the Russians rolled in, camp guards began evacuating inmates and burning evidence of the Final Solution. Weisel writes about how surviving resistance members in the camps acted together to stop the Germans from killing the rest of the survivors:

“We returned to the block. On our way there, we learned that the underground resistance of the camp had made the decision not to abandon the Jews and to prevent their liquidation . . .

At ten o’clock in the morning, the SS took positions throughout the camp and began to herd the last of us toward the Appelplatz.

The resistance movement decided at that point to act. Armed men appeared from everywhere. Bursts of gunshots. Grenades exploding. We, the children, remained flat on the floor of the block.

The battle did not last long. Around noon, everything was calm again. The SS had fled and the resistance had taken charge of the camp.” –Weisel, Night


Great courage can exist in surviving. As we learn from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum site, surviving the camps was crucial to an organized resistance movement. The site tells us about one survivor, Witold Pilecki, who used the name Tomasz Serafiński to infiltrate Auschwitz and set up a resistance network initially linking the Polish underground to Poles imprisoned in the camp (later, the resistance expanded to include prisoners of all nationalities). Pilecki let himself be caught by the German police during a roundup in Warsaw’s Żoliborz district, and he reached Auschwitz on September 22, 1940. The network smuggled out news about SS crimes, set about preparing the camp to join the fight, and boosted the morale of camp inmates by providing news, food, clothing, medicine, and help with escapes.


Pilecki’s courage and selflessness saved many lives at Auschwitz. Because of him and others like him, Weisel was able to tell the world what happened there. In a second preface to Night, he wrote: “Sometimes I am asked if I know ‘the response to Auschwitz’; I answer that not only do I not know it, but that I don’t even know if a tragedy of this magnitude has a response. What I do know is that there is ‘response’ in responsibility. When we speak of this era of evil and darkness, so close and yet so distant, ‘responsibility’ is the key word.” As we think about self transcendence this week, we are reminded that it takes courage to go on in the darkness, and that tomorrow becomes  possible because we feel a responsibility to others, a camaraderie that is, as Weisel’s Polish prisoner reminds us, the only way to survive.

Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Video: John Haldane, “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life”

Professor John Haldane’s lecture “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life” at the University of South Carolina on December 14, 2015 explored how virtues are the cornerstone of a happy life, including how the sciences of human behavior are related to philosophical investigations of value and conduct, and how ethical evaluation of action has to do with the issues of existential meaning and happiness. Haldane’s lecture was the keynote for the Virtue, Happiness, and Meaning of Life first Working Group Meeting.

John Haldane is professor of philosophy and director of the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs at the University of St Andrews, and the J. Newton Rayzor, Sr., Distinguished Professor in Philosophy at Baylor University. He is a scholar with the “Virtue, Happiness, and Meaning of Life” project. This lecture was funded by a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation. For more information, visit

Audio: “On the Connections Between Virtue, Happiness, and Meaning” at the Franke Institute for the Humanities

photo by Anna Bruzgulis
Click here for more photos from this event

We were delighted when the University of Chicago’s Franke Institute for the Humanities asked Principal Investigator and Director Candace Vogler to give the first Winter quarter “Every Wednesday Luncheon” talk to UChicago faculty and invited guests on January 13, 2016. Our Scholar Marc G. Berman gave the introduction and a lively Q&A followed the talk.

To listen, click “On the Connections Between Virtue, Happiness, and Meaning”.


Recap: 1st Working Group Meeting, days 3, 4, and 5

Nancy Snow, Dan P. McAdams; Reinhard Huetter, Paul Wong, Fr. Thomas Joseph White; David Shatz, Michael Gorman; Matthias Haase, Talbot Brewer; Candace Vogler;  Reinhard Huetter, Mari Jyväsjärvi Stuart, Marc G. Berman;  Marc G. Berman, Heather C. Lench; Reinhard Huetter, Talbot Brewer; Fr. Thomas Joseph White, Paul Wong; Mari Jyväsjärvi Stuart, Heather C. Lench; Reinhad Huetter, Nancy Snow; Michael Gorman, Jennifer A. Frey; Candace Vogler, Michael Gorman; Jennifer A. Frey, Jaime Hovey, Matthias Haase; Kristján Kristjánsson; Erik Angner; Dan P. McAdams; Jennifer A. Frey; Mari Jyväsjärvi Stuart, Jean Porter; Mari Jyväsjärvi Stuart; Marc G. Berman, Dan P. McAdams; Fr. Kevin Flannery, Matthias Haase;  Erik Angner, Jennifer A. Frey; Kristján Kristjánsson, Paul Wong; Jennifer A. Frey, Matthias Haase)

For more photos, visit our “December 2015 Working Group Meeting” Flickr album.

Welcome to our first working group meeting (December 14-19, 2016).

On Wednesday Father Thomas Joseph discussed the relationship between grace and nature, and Paul Wong talked about measuring happiness. In the afternoon Marc Berman discussed his research on nature restoration theory, or how nature commands attention from the mind in a way that restores cognitive energy and creativity. Michael Gorman discussed a purposeful life, and how sometimes we need to stop and listen rather than throw ourselves into “doing something.”


On Thursday Nancy Snow and her collaborator Jennifer Cole Wright discussed their work on measuring ordinary virtues. In the afternoon, Eric Angner spoke on the science of “happiness,” and Reinhard Hütter talked about doing without religion and the virtue of religion.


Friday morning Dan McAdams presented his work on stories of generativity, or the commitment to future generations. Jennifer Frey talked about happiness as a constitutive principle of action in the work of Aquinas. On Friday afternoon Mari Stuart spoke on Hindu moral ecology in an era of climate change, and the meeting week ended with Matthias Haase discussing G. E. M. Anscombe’s “stopping modals” and the necessity for justice.

Recap: 1st Working Group Meeting, days 1 and 2

(Jennifer A. Frey, Candace Vogler; David Shatz; Candace Vogler, Heather Lench, Marc G. Berman,  Mari Jyväsjärvi Stuart, Mattias Haase, Paul Wong, Jean Porter; Jennifer A. Frey, Michael Gorman, Nancy Snow, Fr. Thomas Joseph White; Mari Jyväsjärvi Stuart, David Shatz, Paul Wong, Nathan Cornwell; Fr. Thomas Joseph White, Reinhard Huetter, Fr. Kevin Flannery, Heather C. Lench; Reinhard Huetter, Fr. Kevin Flannery; Candace Vogler, Jean Porter, Kristján Kristjánsson, Mari Jyväsjärvi Stuart; David Shatz, Kristján Kristjánsson, Candace Vogler; Talbot Brewer, Kristján Kristjánsson; John Haldane; Fr. Kevin Flannery; Talbot Brewer, Matthias Haase; Kristján Kristjánsson, Reinhard Huetter; Talbot Brewer)

For more photos, visit our “December 2015 Working Group Meeting” Flickr album.

Welcome to our first working group meeting (December 14-19, 2016).


Some of us started arriving in Columbia, South Carolina as early as Saturday. The weather was nearly 70 degrees when we left the airport that evening and drove into town. Columbia was teeming with graduating students and their families, everyone dressed in their best clothes to celebrate, and the air was golden. It did not feel like the middle of December, which everyone agreed was a good thing.


On Sunday evening we had a cocktail reception at the Hilton Columbia Center for arriving scholars, where we met and mingled for a couple of hours. On Monday things began in earnest, with breakfast at 8 a.m. followed by the first of our working group sessions. Our first morning session featured David Schatz talking about humility, and Kristján Kristjánsson talking about awe. Schatz argued that knowing your weaknesses was the crux of humility, while Kristjánsson suggested that awe makes us at once greater and more humble beings.


There was no afternoon session that day, so everyone was free to rest, take a walk, or explore downtown Columbia. That evening John Haldane delivered a lecture at the Law School on Virtue, Happiness, and Meaning. Haldane used images from the Columbia Museum of Art to discuss how we can recoil from a seeming absence of meaning in the world, or we can probe further for meaning. More than 100 people attended the talk and enjoyed the reception afterward.


The next day, Tuesday, Jean Porter presented on Thomas Aquinas and Justice, arguing among other things that what orients us towards justice is hope and charity. Heather Lench discussed her work on how seemingly disruptive emotions can be very productive for helping people achieve their goals. After lunch Tal Brewer talked about dialectical activity as spontaneous rather than fixed in its intention, and Father Kevin Flannery explored issues of complicity, guilt, and evil.

Dr. King, Self-Transcendence, and Social Justice

Martin Luther King Jr by Sirin Thada
Artwork courtesy Sirin Thada @sirinthada

More than 50 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sat in a city jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, and wrote an extraordinary defense of a self-transcendent social activism. King wrote this defense, his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” just two weeks before Eugene “Bull” Connor, Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety, infamously turned fire hoses and police dogs on over 1000 children and teenagers marching against inequality in the city, forcing the larger American public to acknowledge the cruelty of segregation and the moral imperative of a growing Civil Rights movement. King had been arrested for demonstrating without a permit, and wrote the letter in response to criticism in the local paper by eight religious leaders who objected to his methods and what they perceived as his status as an outside agitator.


As much as any of his speeches or other writings, the Letter is preoccupied with justice. One of the many fascinating things about the Letter is the nature of justice he defines as a kind of step-by-step method of self-transcendence, whereby a person who cares about social justice to any degree comes to engage with it more fully, to the point of complete presence, self-sacrifice, and commitment to the greater good of the world.


King begins by responding to a statement by Southern religious leaders calling his actions in Birmingham, “unwise and untimely.” In answer to this, King sketches out his rationale for advocating the necessity of nonviolent direct action, outlining an approach with roots in a rational empiricism:


“In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action. We have gone through all of these steps in Birmingham.”


King’s answer to the charge of unwisdom is to show the wisdom of direct nonviolent action in the face of racial injustice. How he does this is to show the response to injustice as an extremely rational moral act, one where the sign of a moral being is his or her necessary perception of and response to the presence of injustice. The presence of injustice demands action from the moral person. A moral person cannot stand by and do nothing. In King’s letter, a moral person acts as a rational-even scientific-agent of justice, gathering facts, evaluating evidence, and taking action when justice demands that action be taken.


Having gone through the process of gathering data, King reports his findings:

“There can be no gainsaying of the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of police brutality is known in every section of this country. Its unjust treatment of Negroes in the courts is a notorious reality. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in this nation. These are the hard, brutal, and unbelievable facts.”


Having approached the problem rationally and applied the method of inquiry, the findings are that injustice exists. What is the nature of this injustice? Segregation, police brutality, unequal treatment in the courts according to skin color, unsolved bombings of black homes and churches. The common theme here is race; here we are dealing with racial injustice. Thus racial injustice becomes a particular subgenre of injustice, one that demands redress from those who profit from racial discrimination. Do you know this kind of injustice? He asks his readers. Have you seen it? What have you done? What ought you to have done?


By the time King says, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here,” he has already shown that injustice is indeed present, that we have ways of measuring it, and that we have a duty as moral people to go and be present at the site of injustice in order to remedy it. King uses his presence as a yardstick measuring the extent of injustice in Birmingham at the time; injustice is so great at this point that he needs to physically travel there and work, even to the point of undergoing arrest and imprisonment.


As we remember the legacy of Dr. King’s work this week, we also think about the call to action and presence that injustice demands of the moral person. “We will win our freedom,” he wrote, “because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.” Where is there injustice in our communities, homes, workplaces? How do we know it is there? How does it call us to be where it is, to move beyond ourselves and our comforts and everyday concerns, and to work to change it? If we truly want to be good, how can we hear the call injustice makes to us, asking our natures to respond to others as we already know we should?

Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.