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.




Pints with Aquinas Episode

On New Year’s Day, Pints with Aquinas, a podcast that seeks to explain the thought of Thomas Aquinas to non-specialists, featured an episode on happiness; it is a conversation between me and the podcast’s hilariously self-deprecating and generous host, Matt Fradd.  The episode is titled “How to be happy” but its not about that (no one can tell you how to be happy–virtue is not a technique,  and philosophy isn’t self-help).  I’m posting a link to it here; I hope you enjoy our conversation!

Side note:

Whenever I do a podcast, I always think  about what I wish I had said as opposed to what I actually said.  In this episode,  for instance, Matt asked me why I don’t like Jordan Peterson’s writings.  I wish to say a little bit more in response here than I offered Matt during our conversation.  I didn’t want to derail our episode, but at the same time, I want to be on record about why male interest in Jordan Peterson bothers me.

First and foremost, I don’t follow Jordan Peterson and I have not read his book.  I do not consider this a failure on my part.  I am a finite being with limited resources, and I have to be prudent  about what I decide to read, especially since I read very carefully and in a time consuming way.  Jordan Peterson is famous not because he has brilliant ideas–from what I can gather, his book promotes many pedestrian, time worn platitudes about us, in addition to some fairly shallow readings of great books–but because he is an admitted, radicalized culture warrior.  I am allergic to our toxic culture wars,  as they drag down discourse rather than elevate it.  Culture warriors have practical (typically political) ends and reality gets dragged around to meet these ends on both sides; I have no time for that.  I don’t need to engage yet another voice opposed to finding common ground together.  I want to search for common ground, and if I didn’t believe that was possible I would sooner give up on discourse rather than further destroy it.

But I went further and said I don’t like his work, and that is what needs to be explained.   Jordan Peterson says  some unserious (indeed, laughable) but also dangerous things about women, and frankly, whatever sensible, true  things  he says about our culture is outweighed by his toxic attitudes about women.  For instance, that the feminine is deeply associated with chaos whereas order and reason is masculine, and to treat it any other way would be “transhuman” or denying reality.  For instance:

“You know you can say, ‘Well isn’t it unfortunate that chaos is represented by the feminine’ — well, it might be unfortunate, but it doesn’t matter because that is how it’s represented. It’s been represented like that forever. And there are reasons for it. You can’t change it. It’s not possible. This is underneath everything. If you change those basic categories, people wouldn’t be human anymore. They’d be something else. They’d be transhuman or something. We wouldn’t be able to talk to these new creatures.”

Or, if that wasn’t weird enough, here’s something JP tweeted in 2016:

“Women, if you usurp men they will rebel and fail you and you will have to either jail or enslave them.”

Um, OK.

And please note that his “Twelve Rules for Life” is an antidote to chaos–an antidote to the feminine. I think I know enough already about what he is on about, and I’m not interested in what he’s selling.  If you are interested–if this vision of women appeals to you and rings true to your experience–I’m concerned about you.

Having said this, I certainly don’t want to silence Jordan Peterson, even though I think this vision of the feminine is dangerously false.  I will  raise daughters to be proud of their feminine genius insofar as they have cultivated it. But when men ask me point blank, as Matt did, why I don’t like him, as if he’s obviously great, I hope the answer is now clear:  I don’t have time for misogyny masquerading as eternal verities.  Life is too short, and I’d rather be reading wise women like Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Donna Tartt, Edith Stein, Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil, Marilynne Robinson, Eleonore Stump, or any of the incredibly amazing contemporary women philosophers and theologians I am so blessed to work with and learn from.









Walker Percy Podcast


I was in DC yesterday giving a talk on Walker Percy and the Federalist Radio Hour asked me to swing by their recording studio to do an episode with them.  It was fun (Ben was an incredible host) and I’m delighted they invited me on the show.  In the episode, we discuss Percy’s ideas about the self and self-knowledge, the south, being a southern catholic, despair, sin, sex, women, false transcendence, and how to be alive to your own inevitable catastrophe of self.  If you are interested in Percy, you may want to bust out the Early Times, have a listen, and share with all of your friends. You can access the full episode here.