Workshop on Happiness, Virtue, and the Meaning of Life at Stockholm University | May 5-6, 2017


This two-day workshop aims to close the gap between empirical and philosophical approaches to questions of happiness, virtue, and the meaning of life, in the interest of encouraging the development of an empirically informed philosophy and a science with philosophical awareness. Organizers: Erik Angner and Mats Ingelström.

Keynotes by Jennifer A. Frey (University of South Carolina) and Candace Vogler (University of Chicago).

Presentations by Anna Alexandrova (Cambridge University), Michael Bishop (Florida State
University), Dale Dorsey (University of Kansas), Kirsten Egerstrom (Southern Methodist University), Kaisa Kärki (University of Jyväskylä), Antti Kauppinen (University of Tampere), Jennifer Lockhart (Auburn University), Jason Raibley (California State University), Raffaele Rodogno (Aarhus University), Joshua Lewis Thomas (University of Sheffield), Willem van der Deijl (Erasmus University ) and Sam Wren-Lewis (Leeds University).

FREE ADMISSION „ Time and place: Friday and Saturday 5–6 of May, in the William-Olsson lecture hall (Geovetenskapens hus).

For more information:



Download the poster: Workshop-Happiness-VIrtue-Meaning-Poster.pdf

Boethius on Happiness Part II: Happiness and Love

Image found on the post Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy from “the bower” blog.

Boethius presents us with a picture of happiness in which it is entirely a matter of choice and personal responsibility whether one attains it. If we are unhappy, it is a product of our own culpable ignorance—a failure to know ourselves, and thus a failure to take the means necessary to secure our ultimate, highest end.

I am inclined to think this is far too dismissive of human frailty and interdependence, and of our need to love and be loved by one another. One finds little talk of love in Boethius, or friendship. But how can we understand human happiness without putting love and friendship front and center of our account?

I disagree with Boethius that virtue is entirely within our control, since the cultivation of it depends on others, and is therefore not inoculated against good fortune. Virtue does not rise spontaneously in us, it requires training from those who possess it themselves. But not everyone in life is fortunate enough to be surrounded by virtuous and wise parents, teachers, or friends. Can we expect those born in unfortunate conditions, such as extreme poverty or broken and abusive homes, to come to the wisdom that Philosophy represents? And even if we come to possess it, wisdom itself is fragile. Iris Murdoch was wise in many respects, but during the last years of her life her rational capacities were slowly destroyed by Alzheimer’s disease.

Second, we may think that part of what it is to be wise is not only to recognize but accept and even embrace the fragility of human goodness. Setting aside the question whether Boethius was right to believe in eternal life and man’s potential participation in it, it seems that genuine self-knowledge includes both the recognition and embrace of our own radical vulnerability and dependence upon others. It is a fact about us that even the best things we can hope to attain for ourselves in this life—a loving family, meaningful friendships, knowledge and wisdom, etc—we may lose against our will. This inherent fragility does not denigrate these goods or our pursuit of them, but rather, reveals an important truth about human beings: we need to rely on others, and radically so. Human love grows in a space of mutual dependence and trust, and it depends on our recognition of our inherent exposure to evil and misfortune. Our happiness is not, as Philosophy insists, totally up to us. We need to be able to turn to others, to expose ourselves and share the burdens of the human condition. This is true for religious persons just as much as their secular counterparts.

Boethius is right, however, to stress that while we cannot control what happens to us, we can control how we react to it. A wise person will know that suffering through life’s inevitable misfortunes and disappointments is the fate of us all, and that part of living well is possessing the ability to suffer well—to face our brokenness with a measure of fortitude. It is also true that some of us will have to suffer far more than others, and that some of this does come down to luck. Boethius is further correct to say that if we have cultivated the virtues, we will be better equipped to bear our burdens with a measure of grace. But virtue alone is not enough—we do need the love, support, and companionship of intimates and neighbors. Boethius was wrong, I think, to focus so much on “self-sufficiency.” None of us is self-sufficient, and it’s a mistake to strive to be.

Boethius, alone in his prison cell, certainly had no friends to turn to. But perhaps Boethius looked upon Aristotle, Plato and others as friends—guides to help him navigate his fallen state. Wisdom is reached in a manner that is mediated by tradition, and we may find in great works of art, literature, and philosophy a similar expansion of the self through others that can console us in our darkest hours. Philosophy too is a kind of friend and constant companion.

Finally, Boethius’s work can help us to see that there is something true in what Kant says about the good will. If we are extremely unlucky in life, we may accept our fate and yet not give in to total despair. If nothing else, a good person can rest in the knowledge that she could not have managed better for herself. While it may not be a perfectly happy death, it is a far cry the despairing thought that one’s life was a pointless waste.

Kant was wrong, however, to insist that the inevitability of luck shows that the pursuit of happiness is suspect, for he was wrong to insist that all that matters is the cultivation of a good will. It is not wrong to want to be happy and to direct one’s efforts towards this goal. But we must do so in a way that is clear eyed about what we are: vulnerable and dependent creatures, in need of giving and receiving love. All of us, like Boethius, stand more or less insecure. The key to happiness, then, is probably not to search for what is ultimately up to us—nothing seems to fit this description—but to seek, as best we can, and with the acknowledged help of others, to become the kind of person who loves rightly, and is thereby easy to love in return.


Part I-Happiness and Good Fortune

Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and Principal Investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.

In Honor of International Day of Happiness: Boethius, Philosophy, and Happiness. Part I-Happiness and Good Fortune

“Philosophy Presenting the Seven Liberal Arts to Boethius” – image courtesy

Everyone strives for happiness in life, but you don’t have to be especially perceptive to notice that not everyone reaches the goal.  How much of this failure is one’s own fault? After all, we humans are vulnerable creatures, all more or less at the mercy of fortune.  Talent, beauty, intelligence, health, social privilege, a loving and secure family—these gifts are distributed unequally among us, and we may lose them against our wills.  This raises the question: How much of human happiness is a matter of good fortune or gift, and how much of it is under a person’s voluntary control?  Even the word happiness carries with it connotations of what is bestowed rather than earned (etymologically, it’s root is ‘hap,’ which means good luck; in fact, in most European languages, the word for happiness originally had the same reference to good fortune rather what has been merited through wise choices).

Contemporary virtue ethicists often argue that the purpose of life is happiness, and that if you hope to reach it, you ought to cultivate a good character.[1] But then what should we say to the man who cultivates virtue but to whom happiness is ultimately denied?  Do we simply acknowledge that there is an element of luck in anything a human pursues, including the highest good?  Must we admit that some among us are tragic figures, fated to a sorry end despite all hard fought efforts to change it?

Furthermore, if real tragedy is possible, then perhaps it is wrong to insist that happiness is the goal of life; perhaps instead, as Immanuel Kant argues, we should simply strive to be moral, without thinking this is in the service of anything else.  In his influential Metaphysics of Morals, Kant claims the following about a good will:

“Even if by some particular disfavor of fate, or by the scanty endowment of a stepmotherly nature, this will should entirely lack the capacity to carry through its purpose; if despite its greatest striving it should still accomplish nothing, and only the good will were to remain…then, like a jewel, it would still shine by itself, as something that has full worth in itself”.”[2]

The role of fortune in human life and its impact on happiness is the central theme of one of the most influential literary texts of the Middle Ages, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy.  For Boethius (475-526), the questions surrounding fate and fortune were not merely academic but existential; a philosopher-statesman in the mold that Plato first outlined, Boethius finds himself unjustly accused of treason and sentenced to an untimely and cruel death. While imprisoned, without his library, his health, his friends or family, Boethius composes a deeply moving meditation on wisdom and happiness.

The book opens with a lament upon his own pitiful condition, which will set up a sharp contrast between Boethius and Lady Philosophy.  Boethius describes himself in a state of physical decline and despair; with “untimely white upon his head,” he describes himself as a “worn out bone bag hung with flesh.”  He yearns for the release of death, but complains that death’s ears are “deaf to hopeless cries” and death’s hands refuse “to close poor weeping eyes.”  Reflecting upon his earlier life, he writes:

Foolish the friends who called me happy then

For falling shows a man stood insecure.

While he is busy feeling sorry for himself, Lady Philosophy—wisdom personified—appears to him.  She is noted for her keen, burning eyes, a sign that she is able to see reality clearly.  She, unlike Boethius, is healthy, calm and unperturbed, of regal mien and dress.  She carries books in one arm (a symbol of her knowledge) and a scepter in the other (a symbol of her power to order and rule life in accordance with it). Philosophy is described as a physician who has come to diagnose and heal Boethius; she tells him he suffers from a “sickness of mind”—an amnesia, since he has forgotten what he once knew. This amnesia has been brought about not by his change of fortune, but his inordinate focus on his current plight, which stirs up in him vehement passions of grief, sadness, and anger. Philosophy is there to help him recover knowledge of himself and his true nature.  This knowledge, she tells him, will be his ultimate consolation and cure.

Philosophy uses rational argument to heal her patient.  She begins by arguing that the loss of good fortune is no genuine loss.  Fortune, she complains, flatters people and entices them with a false sense of happiness.  The happiness that good fortune grants is unreliable and insecure, as change is the very essence of fortune.  Boethius depicts Fortune as a lady gleefully and carelessly spinning a wheel that determines man’s fate.  When it is her turn to speak to Boethius, she warns him:

It is the game I never cease to play as I turn my wheel in its ever changing circle, filled with joy as I bring the top to the bottom and the bottom to the top.  Yes, rise up on my wheel if you like, but don’t count it an injury when by the same token you begin to fall, as the rules of the game will require.[3]

Fortune controls worldly goods: wealth, honors, power, fame, and pleasures.  Philosophy points out that none of these goods is ever wholly stable or secure. Thus, if a man sets his heart upon any of them he is bound to wind up anxious in his ongoing struggle to maintain them.

Real happiness, by contrast, cannot be lost to a man who possesses it.  Such a good is “self-sufficient” in that it lacks nothing and leaves nothing more to be desired once possessed.  A man who is truly happy is perfectly sated—he does not thirst or want for more.  Eventually, Philosophy comes to argue that the only candidate for such a complete and perfect good is God, and that the only way to participate in this good is to cultivate virtue.  This is meant to console Boethius, since the cultivation of virtue is the one thing she insists is under his complete control.

Tomorrow, Part II of Boethius, Philosophy, and Happiness continues with “Happiness and Love.”

[1] For example, see Rosalind Hursthouse’s claim that virtue is a “safe bet.” On Virtue Ethics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 185

[2] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of morals. Edited and translated by Mary Gregor, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 8.

[3] Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy. Translated by Victor Watts.  London: Penguin Books, 1999, p. 25

Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and Principal Investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.

On “Aevum Measures” by Steven Toussaint


I have a fondness for recondite and forgotten words, whose discovery in the corners of old books so often launches my digression into still deeper planes of historical and conceptual oblivion. Only recently have I realized that much of the work I describe to myself as “writing” consists in hours spent sifting through these sands for a private intelligible object, for a single concept the ages may have cast into the bottomless pit, but that I might rescue, jury-rig, and make useful now. I am also fond of resurrection stories, no less of words than of people.


In the grand cathedral of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa, the aevum is an ornamental flourish, like the smile on a gargoyle. More than anything, it serves as a tiny component of Aquinas’s solution to a complex intellectual problem: how do we measure and distinguish the existence of fundamentally different kinds of corporeal and spiritual reality? Considering, for example, the difference between God’s experience of time and that of human beings, it becomes clear that the word time itself is inadequate to express the distinction, just as, elsewhere in Aquinas’ system, being will have to appear with an asterisk if we’re using the same word to describe the particular ways in which God and humans respectively are. Eternity, the unique span in which God endures, is not simply an infinite quantity of time, the mode of duration enjoyed by humans and earthly creatures, but something metaphysically other. One comes to understand, reading Aquinas nimbly outstep the objections to his argument, that in meditation on first principles we are perhaps too often measuring distances in kilograms and masses in meters.


Aquinas introduces the aevum as a third term, the mean between God’s eternity and humankind’s time. Simply defined, it is the measure of duration enjoyed by the heavenly bodies: the planets, the angels, and the saints. Again, its difference from time is not in degree but in kind. If “permanence of being” is God’s perfection, the total co-incidence of being with its own perpetual endurance, then aeviternal beings “recede” less from this perfection than temporal beings. As beings, in other words, they are subject neither to change nor diminishment. As created things they begin, but unlike us they remain. Were changeableness entirely foreign to the aevum, however, there would be nothing to distinguish it from eternity. According to Aquinas, with a changeless nature, the populations of the aevum have a changeful will, a changeful personality, a changeful influence.


The co-incidence of permanence and discrepancy that defines, for Aquinas, the peculiar lineaments of the aevum strikes me as relevant for thinking about poetry, or art of any kind. It’s an ancient cliché that psychologizes the artist as striving to create something “eternal” as his or her consolation for a transitory existence. Perhaps the aevum is the artist’s true destination. That simple but elusive end, an artwork whose actualization feels inevitable and yet surprising, recalls Aquinas’ fastidious discriminations above. Is the poet’s ideal object, in fact, the manufacture of an angel? A creature everlasting, but also capable of swerving from its intended course?


The theologian Catherine Pickstock describes this “non-identical repetition,” the conjunction of the same and the different, as the metaphysical character of liturgical language and action. She points to the proliferation of literary devices such as anaphora and apostrophe in the Tridentine Mass, which “engage the worshipper in a complex activity, both anamnetic and anticipatory.” According to Pickstock, the Mass construes its own duration as prefatory to salvation, whose “eschatological consummation” is not some achievement in time, not some temporal terminus towards which we advance through discrete human accomplishments. The “time” of the Mass, therefore, implicitly offers a critique of time, of human history, which arrogates moral progress to its own immanent departures and arrivals.


Pickstock hears something analogous in the music of Olivier Messiaen, whose fascination with interminable durations—geologic time, ever-present birdsong, eschatological anticipation, and the angelic aevum—seems to expose the triviality of human hurriedness, but also to dramatize how our very entanglement in these larger spans ensures our participation in what Messiaen called “the perpetual variation” of the aeviternal. I am particularly invested in the intersection between this aspect of Messiaen’s work and his peculiar take on dissonance. Robert Sholl identifies that Messiaen flips the conventionally negative associations of dissonant intervals such as the tritone, so that these notes and chords come to serve as leitmotifs for divine grace, sublimity, and human redemption. I am intrigued that seraphic voices, were we to hear them, might not sound consoling, or even recognizably beautiful, but penetrating, shrill, even unbearable.


None of the above ideas exhaust what I have tried to do in “Aevum Measures,” but I hope they establish the chain of associations that got me started.

An excerpt from ‘Aevum Measures,’ reprinted with permission from The Cultural Society. 


abide more tritone idle mode

if bodies into bodies steal


as cockles swim

or scuttle

for hollowed hull

and drawing breath

in darkness mull


and out of both



abide more tritone idle mode

the dominant’s a leaky still


for quiet divination

for every thought

a finger on

the fret-

board’s shifting centre

and nothing dearer

than the pure heart’s

purring minor

requires no demonstration


abide more tritone idle mode

the poor heart’s pooling mirror


for rivers must

revert upon attrition

not on faith alone


trembling notes

on tearing bow

the clerics call

a devil’s acquisition

a breathing hull

as cockles cling

to boats they know


abide more tritone idle mode

the shaper and the shaper’s skill


made sharpest corners


while desperate will

sequestered crept

in steady brass

the skid to dread

we cringe

that man carves flesh

out of himself

a flying V

the tympani

a temporary residence


abide more tritone idle mode

the rosy cross in domic hush


the rosy wheel

in swansdown ayre

the melodist

with rigged guitar


with mordents pricked

from erstwhile soaring


what miracle

so much of pain

could make it past

your theist brush

your mark of Cain

where airplanes rush

and hostile trace

abandoned ships

in space


abide more tritone idle mode

despite the light your light deprives


we see it crest

in savage angel


in fauxbourdon

where devils scourged


in antiphon

where any pleasure

fifths afforded

flights aborted measure

notes neglected bird-


space a bird denies


Steven Toussaint is the author of the poetry collection, The Bellfounder (The Cultural Society, 2015), and a chapbook, Fiddlehead (Compound Press, 2014). With his wife, the novelist Eleanor Catton, he administers the Horoeka/Lancewood Reading Grant. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Steven was the 2016 Writer in Residence at the University of Waikato and is a Grimshaw Sargeson Fellow for 2017. He lives and works in Auckland, New Zealand.

What John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University Has to Teach Us

University Church of St Mary the Virgin, where John Henry Newman became vicar in 1828. Photo by Arnaud Malon.

We’re presenting a short series of abstracts of the work-in-progress our scholars will present and discuss at their June 2017 Working Group Meeting.

Reinhard Hütter is Professor of Christian Theology at The Catholic University of America and Duke University.

In my last paper I argued that any robust philosophical, let one, theological account of happiness and self-transcendence presupposes an account of finality or teleology. I advanced the case that without an antecedent understanding of the specific nature and the distinct finality of the human person, it is rather futile to gain clarity about the nature of authentic happiness, of genuine self-transcendence and last, but not least, about the question of a perfect continuous state of ek-static bliss, surpassingly fulfilled self-transcendence, or, what the Catholic tradition calls, the beatific vision. Hidden disagreements on this fundamental metaphysical level (human beings are not persons but at best super-primates; they do not have rational souls, but the mind is an epiphenomenon of neurological processes; the universe is bereft of finality, because there does not exist a transcendent First Cause and Final End, usually called God) give rise to notions of happiness that are not only philosophically underdetermined but mutually exclusive, if not simply equivocal. I held that one important step toward a clarification of these matters is a straightforward description of a particular, comprehensive account of finality, self-transcendence, and happiness, an account that lays bare its philosophical and theological first principles.

In this paper I take another step by addressing one of the most daunting contemporary obstacles to a rigorous and comprehensive inquiry into the nature of happiness, self-transcendence, and the meaning of life—the late modern research university and its self-imposed limitation to the empirically falsifiable supported by a tacit but tenacious commitment to what can be variously described as the immanent frame, secularism, instrumentalism, and the privileging of the quantifiable and computable as the proper object of what is a “true” science. It is unavoidable that inquiries that transcend this self-imposed limitation of reason, because of their allegedly non-scientific character, are banned from the public space of university discourse and relegated to the realm of the subjective, to the private space of individual curiosity. Or such inquiries must be transformed in such a way that they fit the immanentist and empiricist framework. Certain disciplines (the sad and interiorly disarrayed remnant of the “humanities”) that engage in such inquiries may exist on the margins of the university as historically descriptive, textually interpretive, and conceptually analytic enterprises that may contribute, next to rigorous disciplines like mathematics and cybernetics, to a soft but still in some ways not completely useless propaedeutic to the real work of science. This reality is challenged by an understanding of the university as an institution that essentially engages the whole breadth of reason and does not deny its grandeur in any shape or form. It is in such a university, I suggest, where inquiries into happiness, virtue, and the meaning of life stand at the very center of what a university is about. It is John Henry Newman who articulates the idea of such a university with a still unsurpassed clarity and force.

Audio: Fr. Thomas Joseph White, OP | Metaphysics: Philosophy as Wisdom


Our scholar and theologian Fr. Thomas Joseph White talks about the classical idea of philosophy as wisdom, and the notion of a hierarchy of being in the universe in accord with the modern sciences. The talk also contains a consideration of objections that might arise from Kant, Heidegger or Neo-Darwinianism.
This lecture is part 3 of a 3-part series on an introduction to metaphysics and shared by one of our partners, the Thomistic Institute.


Virtue Talk podcast: “achieving the highest form of happiness” – Josef Stern

VirtueTalklogo1Click the link below to hear our scholar and philosopher Josef Stern discuss Jewish medieval philosophy, his approach as a skeptical reader of Maimonides, multiple levels of meaning into the Akedah or “binding of Isaac”, and how he anticipates  working with scholars in our project across the fields of  philosophy, theology, and psychology will impact his approach to thinking about ideas of happiness, meaning, and perplexity.

Virtue Talk | Josef Stern

Josef Stern (with Paul Wong and Jennifer A. Frey) at the December 2016 working group meeting.

Josef Stern is the William H. Colvin Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Chicago and from 2009-14 he was Inaugural Director of the Chicago Center for Jewish Studies. His book The Matter and Form of Maimonides’ Guide (Harvard UP, 20013) won the  2014 Book Prize for the best book on the history of philosophy published in 2013, awarded by the Board of Directors of the Journal of the History of Philosophy, and will be published soon in a slightly revised version in Hebrew as  Homer ve-Tzurah Ba-Moreh Nevukhim Le-RaMBaM  by Kibbutz Ha-Me’uhad Publishers, Israel. Stern is also completing another book, Quotations and Pictures, to be published in 2018 by MIT Press.



Preview on iTunes

Read about our podcast “Virtue Talk”