Our next Summer seminar is “Virtue, Happiness, & Self-transcendence”


Topic: “Virtue, Happiness, & Self-transcendence”

June 18 (arrive) – 23, 2017

Location: University of Chicago, Hyde Park campus

Applications for the 2017 Summer Seminar will open in mid-October 2017.

The Seminar is intended for outstanding middle- and advanced-level graduate students and early career researchers in the areas of Philosophy, Psychology, and Theology/Religious Studies. Our aim is to involve participants in our innovative and collaborative research framework within these three fields, and to provide an engaged environment to deepen and enliven their own research.

The Seminar is highly intensive, meeting twice a day for one week and continues in conversations informally over meals. Click here for more information.

Salem Repentance

Salem gravestone. Photo by Jussi


Is repentance a virtue? Can sites of repentance that memorialize trauma and injustice help us be better people?


If you believe that human nature inherently strives to embrace good and repudiate evil, you might see some affirmation of this in the fate of Salem, Massachusetts. I recently visited Salem to witness its evolution from the sleepy, working-class Boston suburb I once knew from childhood visits with my grandparents to the “Witch City” it is today, replete with police cars and fire trucks sporting the logo of a woman in a pointed hat on a broom, silhouetted against a full moon. Salem’s official and unofficial memorials to the witch persecutions of 1692 constitute a vibrant reclamation of diversity in a town that, more that 300 years later, is still best known for a brief, violent assertion of political and religious authority that famously scapegoated unconventional women, the poor, and those that defended them. To witness Salem’s contemporary celebration of everyday magic is to sense the yearning for justice that exists in human hearts and manifests itself through participatory gestures of generosity and tolerance, but it is also to reflect on the guilty, melancholic repetitions that can mark recognition of those common, human tendencies–cowardice, rage, envy, and intolerance–that reside in each of us.


In Salem today, official sites of mourning and memory exist alongside tawdry museums filled with lurid, full-sized dioramas depicting medieval dungeons, instruments of torture, and store mannequins dressed like Puritan matrons hanging from gallows. Contemporary Salem has occult boutiques on every corner peddling witch souvenirs and New Age collectibles to tourists while also selling candles, sage, incense, spell ingredients, Wiccan jewelry, and tarot cards to aspiring everyday witches and wizards. Witch tours start at dusk at the old Town Hall, variously led by history buffs, maritime enthusiasts, ghost story aficionados, sympathetic pagans, and practicing Wiccans. It is said that there are anywhere between 800 and 1600 witches living in Salem today, and there is even a Witches Education Bureau. A sculpture of Elizabeth Montgomery—the actress from the 1960s television series “Bewitched”—sits on a crescent moon in a town park. A brand new feminist group formed in Salem just this May gives thanks on their web page that such groups are easily started there because the town has “the coolest little aliens” residing in it.


Salem Police Car (Tom G.)
Photo from http://www.lifeisahighwaytheblog.com.


Many countries have places that memorialize injustice, places where the act of remembering takes on ethical significance. In the U.S. these sites can be official, like the Wounded Knee Memorial that pays tribute to the 1890 massacre of Lakota men, women, and children by the U.S. Army; and unofficial, like Martin Luther King Jr.’s room at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, preserved for years by owner Walter Bailey to reflect the way it looked on the day the Civil Rights leader was fatally shot there, long before the hotel finally became The National Civil Rights Museum in 1991.

In its report “The Urge to Remember: The Role of Memorials in Social Reconstruction and Transitional Justice,” the Memorialization Working Group of the Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C. identifies the goals of memorializing conflict and injustice as reconciliation and social reconstruction. The function of memorials, they argue, should be to create a place to mourn, a place that symbolizes a community’s or nation’s commitment to human rights, and a place where symbolic reparations can be offered to victims of injustice.

Salem’s great injustices were directed primarily at women, so it is fitting that the town has become a haven for witches and feminists. Tour guides in Salem like to point out the innocuous fountain in the middle of town, recently built on the site of the town’s original fresh water spring. This busy thoroughfare of shops and restaurants was once the perfect spot for public humiliation, where residents came daily to fetch fresh water, walking past offenders displayed in chains or locked to wooden racks as punishment for adultery, fornication, gossip, and general insubordination. Here women who talked too much were pinioned for hours with bridles on their heads and metal bits pulling their lips back from their teeth, their suffering a warning to others that scolds and social rebels would not be tolerated by the town fathers.


Photo by Kim Jones

The mournful old homesteads I remember visiting as a child still draw tourists; Nathaniel Hawthorne’s family House of the Seven Gables and Judge Jonathan Corwin’s “Witch House” hunch their shoulders suspiciously against the sky as scores of pilgrims pay their respects, marching through residential and commercial neighborhoods in search of clues as to why this particular town went out of its mind three hundred and twenty-four years ago, charging nearly two hundred people with witchcraft and brutally executing twenty of its citizens, including socially prominent elderly men and women in their seventies and eighties.


In the center of Salem sits the Old Burying Point, with many of its gravestones dated before 1800 and featuring winged skulls and angels on their arched tops. Next to this, running all along one side, a granite wall encloses a long rectangle, open at one end and punctuated by shade trees. Twenty stone benches jut out from the sides of the wall, each inscribed with a name and cause and date of death. This is the Salem Witch Trials Memorial.


The dates on the stones, all from 1692, are precise and evenly spaced throughout the summer: June 10, July 19, August 19, September 19, September 22. The memorial was dedicated by Elie Wiesel, who travelled there in 1992 to give a speech three hundred years after that terrible season. Looking around at the benches ringing the little yard, one is struck by how many memorial stones there are here. The number of benches, each with its quiet dignity, reminds us here that there were not three, or four, or five people executed for witchcraft in Salem, as movies about the trials often suggest, but the unthinkable number of twenty, with scores more languishing in prison, some in cells below sea level where the ocean crept in twice a day to torment them.

Salem Witch Trials Memorial. Photo by Michael Femia


The memorial itself stands in somber contrast to the tacky exuberance of Salem’s witch tourism. On one end, its artists designed the wall to look as if it had been lifted, flipped over, and separated from the rest of the structure, revealing stones on the ground carved with words taken from the defendants in their trial transcripts. While many of those hanged were buried anonymously on Gallows Hill, here the bench stones with the names of each victim, and the front stones with their words refuting accusations of witchcraft and sorcery, work together to resist the silencing and erasure performed by the executions.


Photo by John Hyun

The Memorial’s bench stones show Bridget Bishop as the first to die, a lone victim hanged in June. By the end of July we learn she was joined by five women, including Rebecca Nurse, a devout grandmother of 71 years. We see that four men and a woman were executed in August, including Giles Cory and his wife, who spoke out against the terror. Giles was pressed to death at the age of eighty for his famous refusal to stand trial, an act that meant certain death for him but the retention of his farm for his remaining family. In the dates, we note the shocking escalation of deaths, as nine more people are killed on one day in September.


Photo by Nick Ares

Although more would be convicted and sentenced to death before they were pardoned and released, September 22 marks the end of the executions. Five people accused in Salem died in prison. Five more people escaped. The whole mess finally began to unravel in earnest when the governor’s wife was accused; those remaining in prison were eventually exonerated or had their charges dropped. Public outcry against the trials was immediate and sustained, and the next three centuries witnessed attempts by moral leaders and families of the victims to clear the names of those executed. However, while many convictions were overturned in

Photo by Nick Ares

1711, and still others as late as 1957, it was not until 2001 that Massachusetts finally exonerated all its convicted witches name by name.


Some scholars have argued that the weather is to blame for what happened in Salem, as the charges and arrests began during what has been termed the “Little Ice Age,” a period characterized by unusually cold winters and dry summers. Others blame the political and religious conflicts in Salem, Salem Village, and the surrounding towns, where many locals

Photo by Dex

enjoyed quarreling over property lines, inheritance laws, and religious doctrine. A strong case can be made for misogyny as one important factor in the trials, since the first people accused were uppity women, and class warfare as another, since the initial batch of accused were poor, and subsequent accusations were directed at wealthier landowners by those coveting their property and social status.


Climate change, political conflict, intolerance, misogyny, class warfare. We like to think that Salem could never happen again, but it is precisely this kind of forgetting that makes the work of memorializing injustice so important today. Salem has responded to its past with lively entrepreneurial exuberance, tolerance of diversity, and solemn respect, yet one can’t help marveling that a town that once turned on itself with such ferocity, and subsequently struggled for years to distance itself from those events, is now almost completely defined and shaped by that moment and its subsequent responses to it, living inside a story it tells over and over, as if compelled to echo that disaster, and the many voices that might have averted it, for eternity.

Photo by Jennifer Boyer

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







What Pokemon Go Teaches Us About Virtue

Pokemon Go players at Loyola beach. Photo by Jaime Hovey.

Since its release on July 7th 2016, Pokemon Go has already become the most downloaded video game of all time in the United States. Nintendo’s market value went up an astonishing 9 billion dollars in five days, and most major cities in the U.S now have a dedicated following of people getting together to hunt digital creatures. We can of course point to a plurality of reasons why Pokemon Go has become such a success: 90’s nostalgia, the novelty of augmented reality, and a fun way to exercise, among others. However, I wish to illuminate one aspect of the success story that has been surprisingly ignored: namely, that playing Pokemon Go may also be virtuous.


If you have not yet downloaded Pokemon Go, here is how it works. The object of the game is to catch as many little fantasy creatures—Pokemon—as possible. The phone app displays the player’s location on a map via GPS. When the player moves around in the real world, so does a little avatar on the map. Therefore if you want to go from A to B in the game you have to do it in real life. Pokemon creatures are scattered all around the map and players have to move around in real life to catch them. Players go to real world locations, pull out their phones, and try to catch the creatures that appear on their screens. Pokemon come in various degrees of rarity and power, and the more caught the better.


To understand how and why Pokemon Go promotes virtue we need to first think about the role of play and playfulness in human life. When we think of virtuous people and list their characteristics, rarely do we list playfulness as one of their core traits. A virtuous person might be brave, generous and have temperance, but whether that person is playful does not seem to matter in our evaluation of their moral character. However, this is a mistake. Play and playfulness are integral to what it means to be a harmonious and flourishing human being.


A large body of research spanning sociology, psychology, philosophy, and education all support this conclusion. Play and playfulness in adults have been showed to effectively reduce stress, and combat anxiety (Magnuson & Barnett, 2012). Play has long been shown to be an effective learning strategy inside and outside formal education (Mann, 1996). Furthermore, playfulness and play promote mental states that are almost meditative in nature. Being playful and playing makes us healthier, happier, and more open to new information.


The Vienna Circle philosopher Moritz Schlick (1882–1936) went as far as to argue that play is the very meaning of human life (On the Meaning of Life, 1927). Although this claim might seem extreme, we can learn various insights about human flourishing from Schlick’s definition of play. Schlick defines play as a state of mind in which an activity is performed just for the sake of itself. In other words the process of the activity is much more important than the product of the activity (114-115). Play is a mind state that can be applied to any human activity. The playful person finds pleasure in the activity itself, not the product.


If being a flourishing human is to be balanced, happy and steadily self-improving (as Aristotle believed), then playfulness must be included in the list of virtues, since it promotes all the conditions required for flourishing.


As Philosopher Dale Mann points out in Serious Play, learning is a latent function of play, but it is a very powerful and fortunate latent function. In fact, it turns out from studies done on players of the video game World of Warcraft that organizational and leadership skills are taught much better when the intention is simply to have fun and not to learn (Forbes Magazine, JUN 24, 2015). In other words, if you want someone to learn, let them enjoy something that is fun simply for the sake of itself, and they will work it out with a whole new skill set. Nobody gets on a swing to learn kinesthetic coordination, or to build muscles; children get on swings because they are fun. Similarly, nobody plays Pokemon Go because they want to learn the metric system, city geography, or statistics. People play Pokemon Go because it is enjoyable in itself, and that has tremendous learning potential.


Similarly–as the site Gizmodo reports–American students are suddenly starting to understand the metric system, since Pokemon Go operates in kilometers not miles (Nunez 2016). Geography teachers in Copenhagen Denmark found that those of their students who played Pokemon Go not only began to develop a much stronger contextual understanding of the city and its history, they also had much stronger basic understanding of maps and national geography (Realdania, 2016). As a personal example, I can say that I now remember which main streets in Chicago are North-South directed and which streets run East-West because playing Pokemon Go has taught me the city’s grid.


Pokemon Go in Perth. Photo source: The Sydney Morning Herald

It has been accepted for decades that meditation is a healthy way to relieve stress and anxiety. However, if we take Moritz Schlick’s definition of play seriously, then a successful engagement with a playful experience should have the same healthy effect as meditation. This means we might start thinking of play as another avenue for self-love and self-care. Researchers are finding that Pokemon Go encourages a kind of playful sensibility and sociability that can be very good for shy people, people with agoraphobia, and people with autism, many of whom struggle with social skills. Cities such as New York and Chicago have communities of people who venture out together in flocks to catch Pokemon, set lures, and acquire Poke Gyms from rivaling teams. When walking through the Chicago loop one can often see groups of people spontaneously meeting and talking to one another because they ran into someone else playing Pokemon Go. Players rely on information from other players about where to find a Poke Gym or where rare Pokemon have been sighted.



What is even more astonishing is that the game seems to promote almost altruistic tendencies in people. Players can work together by setting lures, which are little traps that attract Pokemon the same way using bait attracts fish. One person might pay for a lure and launch it somewhere, but anyone else in the vicinity can benefit from it. Players enjoy this social aspect of the game, as the lures they have generously set attract other humans as well. While there is no reward for helping other players, Pokemon Go has developed a community of people helping one another out by setting lures or giving directions simply so that others may enjoy the game. This is especially pronounced in the case of setting the lure, since the player may never see or talk to the person that benefits from the help. Although we have to be careful drawing any grand conclusions regarding human nature from a video game, it is interesting to note that as soon as people are in a non-competitive playful environment, the possibility of genuine altruism emerges.


Pokemon Go promotes self-care because it is played only for the sake of itself. The enjoyment one get’s from catching Pokemon is not from completing the game, which is currently impossible. In fact the game is very up front about the fact that it is impossible to complete it. Neither can the game be lost, since there are no time limits and no life counter or points. Rather, the enjoyment from Pokemon Go is generated from process itself. Unlike so many other games that are focused on competition, skill acquisition, and achievement, Pokemon Go demands only the desire for adventure (and good walking shoes). We can say that Pokemon Go promotes the mental state of flow: the mind set in which a person becomes so engaged with the activity that they forget everything else and become one with the activity. Some might see achieving such a mind state in a video game as a form of dilly dallying, but that is exactly why it is healthy. Entering into a mind state of flow has consistently been shown support overall happiness, improve academic and work related performance and relieve stress (Csikszentmihalyi, 2014). Whether the condition of flow is acquired through a video game or diligently working on a tax report, the benefits are the same.

“Pokemon Go takes me to Black Lives Matter Protest” by Jesse Samuel Anderson.

We cannot forget that play is intrinsically community oriented. Culturally in the West adults have many forms of entertainment available to them, but there is an important difference between being entertained, and playing. Entertainment can be a passive form of consumption; play and playfulness, on the other hand, demands participation. Pokemon Go encourages players to explore their community by making landmarks in the real world appear on the map as either Poke Gyms—places to battle with other players–or Poke stops (locations to pick up game items). Poke Gyms are often important locations such as the entrance to a museum, a famous sculpture, or a historic site. For example, the Regenstein library at the University of Chicago is a Pokegym (guarded by a Gastly). By making actual landmarks integral to the gameplay experience, Pokemon Go makes its participants explore their own and other communities.


Pokemon Go has been a global success for many reasons, but one of the most important reasons people enjoy it is because the game is inherently playful and encourages collaboration and altruism. To be playful is a virtue that directly takes us towards flourishing because it promotes balance, happiness, community, altruism, and self-love. So the next time you see a group of grownups running around trying to evolve their Bulbasaur, don’t just roll your eyes. Think about joining in the fun.

Christian Kronsted is a graduate student assistant with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Video: Aquinas’s Third Way of Proving a God: Logic or Love? | Fr. Stephen L. Brock at Lumen Christi

Fr. Stephen L. Brock is our Spring 2017 Visiting Scholar and on the faculty of our June 2017 Summer Seminar, “Virtue, Happiness, & Self-transcendence.” In doing a little internet surfing about him, we came across a lecture he gave on February 5, 2015 at the University of Chicago, sponsored by our institutional partner Lumen Christi. Bringing the small world concept closer, he’s introduced by our very own principal investigator Candace Vogler.

Fr. Stephen L. Brock is Professor of Medieval Philosophy at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome. He is a member of the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas and is the author of Action & Conduct: Thomas Aquinas and the Theory of Action. He has written numerous articles on various aspects of the thought of Thomas Aquinas, and he has edited several collections including Thomas Aquinas and the Subject of Metaphysics. Fr. Brock leads week long seminars for graduate students in Rome on the thought of Thomas Aquinas.

What motivates humanitarian workers?

World Humanitarian Day (August 19) was established in 2009 by the United Nations to “pay tribute to all those affected by humanitarian crises and those who lost their lives in humanitarian service” and “celebrates the spirit that inspires humanitarian work around the world.” August 19 was chosen because it commemorates the day in 2003 when 22 aid workers were killed in a bombing at the UN headquarters in Baghdad.

World Humanitarian Day is also a call for further action and donations to help those in conflict and disaster, which affect more than 200 million people a year.


Humanitarian workers include those who risk grave danger to rescue people, and who have dedicated their lives to alleviate the suffering of others. While helping others may produce feelings of purpose and meaning to the giver, or provide connection a feeling of moral good to the worker, we don’t always hear from those who put themselves in extraordinary situations to help others in dire circumstances.


“My sincere belief is that emergency food is the only hope for most refugees and displaced people,” says Lucy Wasuk, who works for the World Food Programme in South Sudan, and whose work often puts her in danger. “The greatest risk is entering ‘no man’s land’— where there are unknown militias, and child soldiers, where boundaries are uncertain and UN access is restricted. In 18 years of field work, my most frightening experience was being detained by a child soldier. We had missed a small village in Jonglei State in our 2003 plan, so (local authorities) forced us to stop there. They asked for the team leader, and I was taken and locked in a small hut with an armed boy some 12 years old. His gun was pointing at me — so close, it almost touched my face. He was tired, hungry and almost dozing off with his hand on the trigger. Anything could have happened. I was at his mercy for six long hours until our security officer came from Khartoum and negotiated my release.”

Humanitarian worker Lucy Wasuk. Photo: WFP/George Fominyen

Wasuk discusses the rewards of helping secure food and education for children and communities in her young country. Once, a community named a tree for her. Another time, she helped a child working as a cattle raider go to school. The child became a businessman who now supports others working for Plan International, a WFP partner.


It is reflecting on her work as a response to her experiences as child where Wasuk sees her truest motivation. “Most of my life was spent in the camps, from Bombo refugee camp in Uganda to the displaced people’s camps of Khartoum. My career was not a surprise choice.” [Full story Sharing Humanity: Lucy’s Story – Medium.com]


World Humanitarian Day offers the opportunity for us to hear from humanitarian aid workers about why they do this work, and learn their insights, specific motivations, and stories behind their deep commitment. Continue reading “What motivates humanitarian workers?”

Dan P. McAdams on “The Mind of Donald Trump”


Our scholar Dan P. McAdams  is a psychologist whose work focuses on stories people tell about their lives and how their narratives help create their respective personalities. “Redemptive life narratives serve as a psychological resource for highly generative adults, providing them with the kind of personal story (narrative identity) they often need to persevere in the face of adversity and to keep focused on trying to make a positive difference in the lives of others and in society writ large,” he wrote about his research in  The Virtue Blog last October.

Recently, McAdams published a piece in the June/July issue of The Atlantic analyzing how the personality of Donald Trump might shape his presidency, writing “A large and rapidly growing body of research shows that people’s temperament, their characteristic motivations and goals, and their internal conceptions of themselves are powerful predictors of what they will feel, think, and do in the future, and powerful aids in explaining why. In the realm of politics, psychologists have recently demonstrated how fundamental features of human personality—such as extroversion and narcissism—shaped the distinctive leadership styles of past U. S. presidents, and the decisions they made. While a range of factors, such as world events and political realities, determine what political leaders can and will do in office, foundational tendencies in human personality, which differ dramatically from one leader to the next, are among them.”

McAdams investigated 4 areas of personality construction: Disposition, mental habits, motivations, self-conception; in doing so he explored Trump’s telling of early childhood memories, self-referential language, authoritarianism, focus on personal relationships and one-on-one negotiating, and persona as warrior.

In the August/September issue, readers responded to the article. McAdams also wrote about the piece, noting “Composing an evidence-based psychological commentary on a presidential candidate—one that draws exclusively on well-validated constructs in personality and social psychology and relies on reputable biographical sources—constrains an author in many ways. For one, there have been only 43 U.S. presidents, which is a small sample size for comparison . . .While some supporters of Trump may dismiss any effort to make psychological sense of the man, some detractors will not be satisfied until he has been psychologically eviscerated. I tried to perform a fair-minded interpretation—sticking to the facts as we know them and to some of the best ideas in contemporary psychological science.”

Read “The Mind of Donald Trump” in The Atlantic here.

Read comments and Dan P. McAdams’ response here.

Dan P. McAdams is a scholar with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life, and Henry Wade Rogers Professor of Psychology at Northwestern University.

Valerie Wallace is Assistant Director, Communications, for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Save the date for a debate in NYC!

“Happiness without Religion: A Philosophical Debate”

September 10, 2016 | 3pm | The Catholic Center, New York University | 236 Thompson Street, New York, NY

  • Candace Vogler, David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy, University of Chicago and Co-Principal Investigator, Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life
  • R.R. Reno, First Things
  • Jennifer A. Frey, Assistant Professor, University of South Carolina and Co-Principal Investigator, Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life
  • Thomas Joseph White, OP, Executive Director, Thomistic Institute, Dominican House of Studies, and Scholar, Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life
  • Register at thomisticinstitute.org/upcoming-events

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