What To Do With Aggression?

Still from the the film Lord of the Flies.

I’m used to Nietzsche’s provocations. Or so I thought. Recently, having taught the Genealogy of Morals to a class of college sophomores—rereading the text through their fresh eyes—I was struck yet again by Nietzsche’s audacity, his willingness to celebrate dark, even heinous, urges—e.g., “the voluptuous pleasure in doing evil for the pleasure of doing evil, the enjoyment of violation.”[1]


In my youth, such exclamations felt like a recognition of sorts, a philosophical expression to sides of myself I had been taught to feel ashamed of. Even if it wasn’t evil per se that I was craving, it was evil insofar as we define it, as Nietzsche seems to define, as violation for sake of violation. It was the pleasure of transgression—transgression of social norms—that I fancied. When I read Nietzsche, I was left with an ethical, even political question: What should I do with my ingrained aggression towards social expectations (even if—and perhaps because—I was very mostly obedient)?


Not long after Nietzsche’s death, Sigmund Freud claimed a disturbing discovery, one that explained some of the former’s provocations: we are all afflicted by a death instinct, thanatos, which drives us to undo the structures and regulations that civilization, especially our modern civilization, imposes on us. While civilization does its best to suppress aggressions, its success is limited, or rather: it causes these aggressions to burst out in immense spectacles of violence. In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud appeals to the horrors of the First World War as an example, and had he not died in September 1939, he could surely add a few more atrocities to his list.


Freud’s diagnosis of modern Western civilization—not unlike Nietzsche’s—was bleak. To the extent that it can master thanatos, the price is growing misery since it bars modern subjects from playing out in-born instincts. I believe, however, that his theory gives rise to an ethically productive question: Can we fashion our lives, as both individuals and members of social institutions, in a way that offers our aggressions non-destructive outlets?


The idea that we have inclinations at odds with rational and socially constructive conduct is an old one. In a dominant strand of ethical thought, the imperative is to tame, or—to use Freudian parlance—suppress such inclinations. Immanuel Kant, for example, portrayed moral conduct as a constant struggle between rational duty (expressed by the Categorical Imperative) and our bodily inclinations. Reason must constantly guard against such rebellious forces. It is with this in mind, perhaps, that Nietzsche jabs at Kant: “The categorical imperative smells of cruelty.”[2]


Hegel, Kant’s most famous successor, also likes to jab at the apparent Kantian hostility towards the living body, fraught as it is with urges and instincts. “There is nothing degrading about being alive,” he says in the Philosophy of Right, “and we do not have the alternative of existing in a higher spirituality.”[3] I’d like to suggest that Hegel offers both an interesting construal of our seemingly antisocial aggressions—one that prefigures some of Freud’s insights—and a constructive ethical proposal for accommodating them.


Hegel characterizes desire [Begehren] as inherently aggressive; it subjugates the desired object to the demands of the desiring subject and thereby asserts the subject’s freedom vis-à-vis the objective world. When I desire an apple, I see it as nothing but a potential meal; when I consume it, I turn it into my meal; I make this formerly independent object a part of my subjectivity.


Importantly, this drama of desire has a rational purpose; it is a necessary aspect of attaining individual freedom. Unlike Rousseau, Hegel thinks that man is born unfree. We are thoroughly dependent on the world; we need it. Desire is a step away from dependency, a step towards freedom. It is not a passive need but the active satisfaction of need; moreover, it gives a specific shape to our needs. Feeling hungry, I may need food, but I desire an apple—thereby actively shaping my relationship with the world, asserting a degree (even if limited) of independence.


Furthermore, it is our desirous nature that explains, according to Hegel, why we sometimes even destroy what satisfies our needs. In a curious discussion of child development in his Anthropology, Hegel makes a passing comment: “the most rational thing that children can do with their toys is to break them.”[4] While he doesn’t quite explain this claim, his notion of desire could fill in the lacuna. Toys satisfy a toddler’s need at a certain developmental phase, helping him build various skills. But, he must show himself and others that he is not dependent on them; in breaking his toys he attains greater independence.


It is not only objects that satisfy our desire. In fact, desiring subjects can be all the more satisfying, insofar as they are able to acknowledge our superiority; we can read in their eyes their recognition of us as free, or rather—as more free than them.


Think, for example, about the fictional character of Don Juan, the womanizer for whom seduction is a never-ending task, a repetitive assertion of his masculine power.


Such behavior may strike us as unfortunate, and not for moralistic or anti libertine reasons. It hardly seems like a recipe for a good life. After all, the seducer—even the successful one—seems to be a slave of his own desire, perhaps like a toddler reliant on his toys. Hegel would agree. For him, this basic mode of desire—which treats the world, even people, as nothing but an object for proving one’s superiority—must be transcended if we are to attain more enduring and satisfying freedom.


However, I think Hegel’s originality lies in the realization that this mode of aggressive desire is not only a developmental stage, one we can ideally do away with. We need a sphere in which we can assert our superiority over others, a sphere which serves as an outlet for our inherently aggressive desire. This outlet is the peculiarly modern sphere of civil society, the sphere of the market economy.


In the market economy, the individual is concerned with his self-interest only, “and all else means nothing to him.”[5] He struggles for his subsistence and well-being and accumulates personal property, often by competing with others, outwitting and using them in promoting his own ends. Hegel talks about the modern economic sphere in almost animalistic terms, where “particularity indulges itself in all directions as it satisfies its needs, contingent arbitrariness, and subjective caprice.”[6]


This might seem demeaning, as if human society is no better than a jungle. After all, much of ethical thought is concerned with taking us beyond animalistic urges and behaviors. But Hegel’s point is that such transcendence is impossible, it denies essential aspects of who we are as rational animals. Rather than suppress our animality, we are to offer it a socially constructive playground. This stands to benefit society as a whole, insofar as it increases both personal and social wealth and conduces to innovation and progress.


It appears, however, that the market economy requires precisely what Freud associated with modern civilization, namely, strict obedience to a set of shared norms. How can it afford, then, an outlet for antisocial aggressions? I think that a Hegelian answer could appeal to an alleged similarity between the economy and a collective game. On the one hand, a game requires us to recognize the other participants as peers; we all follow the same rules. In this respect, we must go beyond aggression as a developmental phase, namely, we must recognize others as equals, rather than only as potential satisfaction for our desires. On the other hand, by acknowledging others as peers, we are given a space in which we can assert our superiority over them. Only one (or some) of the players can win the game. One aggression, then, is converted into another, socially constructive one.


It was Marx, Hegel’s most influential critic, who gave us reasons to doubt the idea that civil society—or, specifically, the market economy—is a site of individual freedom. It is not, however, because the market economy is a “jungle” (to use a metaphor many critics of capitalism favor), but because Hegel was still blind to the ways in which the capitalist economy was a site of unprecedented control. For very most of its participants, it is hardly a game—let alone a fair game—in which they can assert their individuality. Nevertheless, even if Hegel’s ethical remedy to our cravings for transgression is a poor one, the problematic that he responded to still calls for attention: What to do with aggression?


[1] Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, Essay 2, §5.

[2] Ibid., § 6.

[3] Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, §123.

[4] Hegel, Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, Addition to §396.

[5] Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, §182, Addition.

[6] Ibid., §185.


Gal Katz is a PhD candidate at the Department of Philosophy at Columbia University. His dissertation explores the relationship between individual freedom and modern skepticism in Hegel’s philosophy.


Curiosity as a Virtue



There is little doubt as to the elevated status of curiosity in our modern secular culture. We are surrounded by its praise and by institutions that aim at nurturing and encouraging our desire to know. So natural and integral is this desire to our nature and experience that, bereft of it, human life appears dreary, and human society, dystopian. Indeed, for many, the mere thought of suppressing the fervent curiosity of children is petrifying, akin to depriving them of one of their senses. At times, curiosity seems like the centerpiece of modern education. Parents send their kids to classes to open their eyes to as many realms of knowledge as possible with the hope that their curiosity will be nurtured. Being curious has become not only the benchmark of a happy and promising childhood but also of a vital adulthood. As long as one is curious, one has not lost one’s vitality; one is still alive. In its absence, our life is dry and ossified.


The exaltations of the desire to know are by no means a peculiarity of our zeitgeist, but it is worth noting that curiosity was also condemned and even considered a sin by great thinkers like Augustine, Aquinas and Montaigne. The very fact that curiosity has not always been conceived as a virtue should pique our curiosity. How could the desire to know be a sin? What could possibly be wrong with pursuing our curiosity? Though the critique of curiosity offered by these early thinkers partly arises out of religious and social commitments more foreign to contemporary society, many of their concerns are as pertinent to us now as they were. Considering their views affords not only a critical distance from our wholehearted admiration for curiosity, but a more robust and nuanced concept of curiosity; one especially relevant to our understanding of curiosity’s place in education.


I first started investigating the virtue of curiosity following a rather mundane academic experience. A special kind of curiosity accompanies the reading of academic books in one’s own field of research. We might call this kind “a sober curiosity”; akin perhaps to the alertness of sense a devout gardener experiences in daily attending her beloved garden. It is an alertness to subtle changes in the familiar paths of her garden, rather than expectant of novelties or unknown marvels. With this “sober curiosity” I turned, not long ago, to reading a book in contemporary ethics. My curiosity, however, gave out not long after, as I found its treatment of subjects dear to my heart overly abstract and technical. After a short break, I reopened the book and noticed the following epigraph:

[…] I flatter myself that I understand all sorts of curiosity – curiosity about daily facts, daily things, about daily men. It is the most respectable faculty of the human mind – in fact, I cannot conceive the uses of an incurious mind. It would be like chamber perpetually locked up.

Joseph Conrad Chance


I felt strangely admonished by these words. After all, my own sober curiosity has just been stifled by the very work that followed. What did the author of the work intended by opening with this epigraph? Was it intended as a literary way to obviate accusations concerning the dry nature of his work: such accusations, the epigraph suggests, attest to the reader’s failed curiosity and “useless mind”? Or perhaps, I thought, the point was not to admonish those whose curiosity faltered in the face of a dry academic work, but rather to disclaim: “this work will capture only a mind of prodigious curiosity.”


Whatever the author’s intention might have been, curiosity itself then became the subject of my curiosity. The epigraph’s unchecked praise of curiosity in association with the nature of his book seemed wrong to me but I wasn’t sure why. Is any object, even the most boring, worthy of our curiosity? Can curiosity be ‘excessive’? What if desiring to know every fact is a deficiency rather than a virtue? If curiosity is like other psychological virtues—e.g., moderation or courage—we should expect it to be a mean between two extremes. But what are those extremes?


As I mentioned above, curiosity has not always enjoyed the elevated status it has today. The history of ideas is scattershot with thinkers who cautioned against the dangers it poses. In a famous part of Plato’s republic we encounter an aspect of curiosity I believe few would encourage:

Leontius, the son of Aglaion, coming up one day from the Piraeus, under the north wall on the outside, observed some dead bodies lying on the ground at the place of execution. He felt a desire to see them, and also a dread and abhorrence of them; for a time he struggled and covered his eyes, but at length the desire got the better of him; and forcing them open, he ran up to the dead bodies, saying, Look, ye wretches, take your fill of the fair sight. [439e]


If curiosity is a desire to knowledge, then Leonitus’ is a case of lust, or as St. Augustine put it, the “lust of the eyes”. It is an excessive case of the desire to know, one whose object we consider improper, in this case, we conceive of it as improper because it does not pay respect to the dead and because it leads to a terrifying and painful experience. For similar reasons, it is commonplace to admonish voyeurism and gossiping, and consider them as vices. We might see such vices as types of excessive curiosity, for in them, the desire for knowledge drives agents to compromise other values such as respect for others, their privacy and their good reputation.


We see then, that despite curiosity’s positive reputation there are cases where it can be seen as excessive and a vice. Thus, if curiosity can be harmful and sinful it would seem to follow that rather than being intrinsically good, its goodness depends on external circumstances and considerations. If so, then, against our contemporary intuition, it would seem that curiosity is not a virtue at all but rather a psychological disposition that can be either good or bad, depending on the situation. What, then, are we to make of this tension between curiosity as a virtue and its ethical ambiguity?


We can begin resolving the tension by distinguishing between the desire to know and the virtuous way of having this desire, i.e., curiosity. As long as we understand curiosity as a desire, i.e., the desire for knowledge, we should expect exactly the odd result we have received, since, in general, desires are not, in and of themselves, virtues. Rather, they are good only insofar as they are exercised in the right way, namely, neither too much nor too little. Consider, for instance, the desire for food: a too vigorous appetite is considered gluttonous, while an overly weak one expresses austerity or apathy, turning eating into a necessary but unpleasant task; neither, clearly, are considered virtues. A moderate appetite, however— neither gluttonous nor insensitive—we conceive as a virtue. Hence, virtue (e.g., moderation in relation to eating) is not a mere desire but rather the right way of having a desire. We can now trace the root of the confusion in relation to curiosity: it is a mistake to define curiosity both as a virtue and as a desire. Conceived as a virtue, curiosity must be the right way of desiring knowledge—the middle way between excessive desire (manifested in vices such as voyeurism) and too little (e.g., apathy).


All that said, the above discussion does not yet explain my response to the epigraph of the dry academic book. Though I sensed that having interest in this book would indicate excessive curiosity, being curious about it clearly would not have constituted something like voyeurism or gossiping—both instances where the desire for knowledge infringes on other values; it is hard to see what value is violated by finding a book interesting. As long as our desire causes no harm, it is tempting to think that there nothing is wrong with both having and satisfying it. Indeed, one may suggest, the stronger the desire the better; for a life that consists of prodigious desires is life filled with excitement and pleasure (with the provisos that we can satisfy them and no harm is made by that). On the basis of this position, it follows that the more vigorous the desire for knowledge, the better. Accordingly, she who can take interest in everything—e.g., every stone, every event, every constellation of objects etc.—is a happy person. It was in this vein that John Hobbes and Francis Bacon argued that the desire for knowledge is the greatest gift of man, for it offers man an endless and insatiable source of pleasures, unlike other appetites we share with animals. Understood as a source of pleasure, there seems to be no point in limiting the objects of a desire (with the above provisos).


What then is the source of unease with the idea that it is a virtue to take interest (i.e., desiring to know) everything? I think we can find a clue in another Platonic text: in the Gorgias, Calicles claims that the happiest life is one in which there is the greatest amount of desire and satisfaction. In response, Socrates asks him whether “a man who has an itch and wants to scratch, and may scratch in all freedom, can pass his life happily in continual scratching.” [494d] Socrates’ point, I take it, is that pleasures, important as they are, cannot be the sole consideration in evaluating human life. Life spent in scratching one’s back strikes us as eerily empty and meaningless. Generalizing from this Socratic example, we may say that pleasure cannot be the only measure of desire’s goodness. In evaluating a desire, like the desire for knowledge, we ought also to consider what is the good associated the desire. Moreover, as we shall see presently, once we understand the good toward which a desire is oriented, we also see that not all possible objects of a desire are equally of value.


Consider the desire for food once more. Surely it is pleasurable to satisfy our hunger, and savoring our favorite dishes is a great pleasure. However, there is more to eating than pleasure. Done properly, eating is also good because it sustains our health; it is crucial to human life; it isn’t merely pleasurable. Furthermore, once we note that health is an end of eating we can also see that not all kinds of food are equally good; desiring unhealthy food makes one’s appetite deficient even though one might still take great pleasure in eating it. Fully understanding a virtue, then, consists of knowing which objects are proper for it and which aren’t.


Against this backdrop, we can now understand my uncurious reaction to the book not (necessarily) as a sign of feeble curiosity, but rather (hopefully), as a recognition of its unworthiness as an object of my desire for knowledge. But how are we to determine whether my sense of its unworthiness is valid? As we have just seen, looking for the good associated with the desire to know is the way of tracing curiosity’s proper objects. Of course, answering these questions in any satisfying way exceeds the limits of the present essay. We might begin, though, by imagining the following case: it would be unjust, for instance, to accuse one of a lack of curiosity for not having any desire to know the number of tiles on the roof of a random building one sees. Indeed, showing such an interest would warrant special explanation. In the absence of such explanation, we might consider it a perversion of one’s desire to know—akin to that limitless, gluttonous appetite. But what makes the desire to know the number of tiles perverse? It seems to me that it is perverse since, strikingly, it has nothing to do with our life in general. We neither have a use for this kind of knowledge nor does it bear on any of life’s significant activities. Now, if told that this roof-tile enthusiast was an architect of rooves, we might become more understanding to her interest in the number of tiles; it may still be a peculiar interest, but not entirely outlandish. This example may suggest that objects worthy for one’s curiosity are objects that relate to one’s involvements, concerns and cares in the world; a result supported by the etymological sources of curiosity in the Latin cūra, which means, care, concern, or worry.


This short essay has aimed to set up the stage for a deeper understanding of curiosity as a virtue. Specifically, as we have seen, what we ought to admire and cultivate is not the mere desire to know, but the virtue of this desire; the right way of having it. In cultivating curiosity, as in cultivating other virtues, our aim must be to allow it to exist in harmony with other values and goods. Moreover, we need to cultivate the desire for proper objects of knowledge. An encouragement of the desire to know without orienting it to facts and subjects that should matter to us may result in an excessive and alienating desire rather than a virtuous one.


Amichai Amit is PhD student in philosophy at the University of Chicago. His research concerns the foundations of ethics and normativity. He also has strong interests in the history of philosophy (ancient and German idealism) and existentialism. He previously received an MA in Philosophy from Tel-Aviv University.


Reflection on the June 2017 Summer Seminar

Our summer session was held in the Neubauer Collegeium at the University of Chicago.

Cabrini Pak was a participant at our June 2017 summer seminar, “Virtue, Happiness, & Self-Transcendence” at the University of Chicago, and wrote this reflection piece based on the 5-day experience. Pak is a PhD Candidate in Religion & Culture at and Teaching Fellow, The Tim and Steph Busch School of Business and Economics, at the Catholic University of America.


There were just over two dozen of us “youngster” scholars, mingled with about half dozen seasoned scholars, and we spent one week together discussing some deep questions about the human person and how one can (or already does) strive towards the “good.” Several disciplines were represented, falling into the larger categories of philosophy, psychology, theology, ethics, and religion and culture. This unique experience, made possible by a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation, and co-sponsored by the Hyde Park Institute, brought together people from all over the world: Canada, Germany, Italy, Nigeria, the Philippines, Portugal, and the United States. The expert speakers in our group included a psychologist, a theologian, and a number of philosophers.


The first day required a massive readjustment on my part in listening to people speak and use their different vocabularies. I often found myself having to ask what a person meant by simple words, words that we use in everyday life but can take on different meaning in the academic milieu – “know,” “good,” “love,” “habit,” “value,” and “incurable.” By the end of the week I felt as if I had learned four different languages. Although all the talks were delivered in American English, the nuances of meaning attached to certain words in the different disciplines reflected very different styles of communication, and perhaps even different ways of knowing things.

Talbot Brewer, Cabrini Pak, Anselm Mueller, at the 2017 Summer Seminar.

I found the discussions inside and outside the formal seminar setting both energizing and draining. They were energizing because we all seemed to have some deep concerns in common, like what it means for human beings to thrive or how happiness in the human life can be achieved, and yet had such different perspectives on how this could or should be accomplished. Debating these differences gave me much to think about. These same discussions were also draining because I was well outside my comfort zone, both as a 95th percentile introvert who requires long periods of silence and solitude, and as a religion and culture scholar from a distinctly Catholic tradition. I had to make my personal boundaries more porous and be willing to temporarily let go of the sharply defined conceptual boundaries of my discipline. In the end, four lessons remained for me as I strive to pursue a more holistic understanding of human flourishing and a practical, communicable, understanding of a “common good” that local communities can strive for.

Continue to break down interdisciplinary and cultural barriers

Often, especially in the academy, disciplines remain siloed and people do not reach out beyond their home disciplines to discuss the “tough questions” that affect us all. Cultural divides, like those between communities of different faiths, linguistic origins, ethnicities, and social class, can also erect barriers to common understanding and meaningful collaboration. I learned this week how important it is to reach out beyond my own discipline and to the fringes of my cultural horizons in order realize a larger-scale vision of a common good that allows for the fullest development of all.

Find a common vocabulary

Words mean something. Sometimes the same word means very different things to different people, depending on where they come from how they use that word in a variety of contexts. Scholars, when dialoguing with other scholars from very different fields, will need to establish some kind of consensus on a basic vocabulary that they can agree upon in order to produce insights that would be valuable to their respective fields. In my case, I have already I identified a subset of words that can be included and need to be collaboratively defined better in discussions around a “common good” – transcendence, virtue, generativity, the “good life”, the ultimate good(s), truth, happiness, joy, human dignity, rights and responsibilities, personal concerns, friendship, telos, and of course, common good.

Expand analysis beyond the individual

Much of what we talked about at the seminar revolved around a specific unit of observation: the individual human being. His or her personal context was examined, whether it was about transcendence, virtue, generatively, telos, or some other factor. My theological interest in realizing a “common good” in a Catholic sense requires me to look not only at the implications for a single human life, but also at the implications for couples, friends, families, communities, cities, countries, and the world as a whole. Things get more complicated when you go from looking at one human being to looking at two human beings, in for example, in the dynamics of friendship. Tensions or dialectics within and between each person must be harmonized in order for the “good” to be realized optimally for both. They get even more complicated when you start looking at group dynamics. I will need to be attentive to the proper extensions of our conversations during this seminar to more communal concepts like solidarity, compassion, subsidiarity, and shared concerns.

Co-author works using above three principles

I tend to agree with Dr. Candace Vogler’s idea that it’s important to “get a kind of deep integration between people working in very different disciplines without relegating their work to the margins of less widely read, explicitly interdisciplinary publications.”[1] I also believe that co-authoring works between scholars of different disciplines, perhaps placing the work within a home discipline publication, could potentially bear much fruit in advancing our understanding. That said, there may also be a benefit to relaxing the borders of the bounded disciplinary journal’s sandbox and sending out a few tendrils to promising interdisciplinary journals. When aligned with the above three principles, perhaps some good fruit will come of such collaborative endeavors.

In the end, I am very grateful to have had this opportunity to gather with such special people in a way that promoted my development both as a scholar and as one in service to a much larger and more diverse community. Thanks to all who made this experience possible, especially the John Templeton Foundation, the Hyde Park Institute, and Candace Vogler, Jennifer Frey, Valerie Wallace, and Jaime Hovey of the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life. You have given me a gift that I will continue to unwrap over the years to come.

[1] Courtney C.W. Guerra, “Scholarship of Self-Transcendence: Candace Vogler leads a search for the meaning of life,” Tableau (Spring 2007), accessed June 27, 2017, https://tableau.uchicago.edu/articles/2017/05/scholarship-self-transcendence.

Interview: Fr. Stephen Brock | “Everyone needs at least a share in the light of wisdom”

Brock Aquinas Spark

Amichai Amit, PhD student in philosophy at the University of Chicago interviewed Philosopher Fr. Stephen Brock, who will give the public talk “Aquinas and the Life of the Mind” on May 12 at 4pm in Harper 140. Visit https://virtue.uchicago.edu/brock for more information, to register (required), and to live-stream.


Amichai Amit: What is the life of the mind? What characterizes the kind contemplation that constitutes this kind of life?

Fr. Stephen Brock: Aquinas regards mind, or intellect, as the very highest form of life.  What distinguishes living beings, at any level, from inanimate things, is that they are intrinsically active.  In some way or another they act on their own, from out of themselves.  They are self-activating.  Even in a plant, the workings of its parts contribute to each other, to the plant’s survival and development as a whole, and to its interactions with its surroundings.  Animals, by their perceptions of things and the desires that result, initiate their own movements and control their interactions with things.  But those that have intellect are agents of their activities to an especially high degree, because they can grasp, and assess, and decide upon, the very purposes or goals that they act for.  It is up to them to dedicate themselves to one kind of activity or another, to adopt their own “way of life.”  In a word, they are free.  They are most alive, because their activities are their own to determine.  They are their own masters; not in every way, of course, or without any conditions, but nevertheless in a very real sense.  And this is because they have intellect, by which they can stand back and see the big picture.  They can take stock of things, and of themselves, and of their relations to things and to each other, and of the various possibilities for activity that are available to them.


Usually, I suppose, if people speak of contemplation at all, it is in contrast to action.  Thinking is one thing; doing is another.  But thinking is certainly an activity in which people can decide to engage.  It can even be one to which people dedicate themselves, what they live for.  I am speaking the kind of thinking whose aim is simply to understand things, to know what they are and why.  Aristotle famously says that all humans desire to know.  When we confront something that we do not understand, we wonder about it; and when we come to understand it, that itself gives us satisfaction, whether or not the understanding is useful for some other purpose that we might have.  In some people the desire for understanding is especially strong, and it can extend very far, even to the desire to understand the whole of reality, as far as our poor minds are capable of that.  That is the desire for wisdom; that is philosophy.  It is very difficult.  But Aquinas took to himself a saying of Aristotle’s, that to catch even a glimpse of the truth about the largest and highest things is more delightful than to understand through and through some smaller, less important thing.


Aquinas also thought that those who engage in contemplation benefit not only themselves but also all of society.  For, even if not everyone has the taste or the aptitude for philosophy, everyone does need at least a share in the light of wisdom.  We all need at least some grasp of the truth about the world and our role in it.  We all know that we exist as parts of something larger than ourselves.  We cannot really be the masters of our lives if we do not have a clear idea of how we fit into the grand scheme of things.

Fr. Stephen Brock is the 2017 Visiting Scholar with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life and the Department of Philosophy at the University of Chicago.

AA: Aristotle, famously, held that the life of contemplation is the happiest life. While many of Aristotle’s notions about virtue and happiness remain appealing to contemporary readers, the notion of contemplative life as happy (and virtuous) may be less immediately clear. Can you explain in a few words in what sense contemplative life is happy, virtuous and meaningful?

SB: It is obvious that moral virtue enhances that freedom of ours, that self-mastery.  It frees us from the waywardness of our passions, from our self-centeredness, from our distractedness, from our thoughtlessness.  But Aristotle also insisted on there being such a thing as intellectual virtue—the cultivation of our minds, mastery over our very thoughts and beliefs, the habit of thinking well and truly about things.  Actually he identified a variety of such habits.  But the primary one, the one that in a way rules over all the others and that perfects and satisfies the mind most of all, is wisdom.  However, I think it is clear that the main reason why he finds the pursuit of wisdom the most satisfying and the most meaningful of all pursuits is that he is sure that it brings us into contact with realities that are even better than us — living realities whose lives are even more perfect, even happier, than ours can be.  He is sure that there are divine beings and that we can know some truth about them.  In one passage he even identifies this as the true purpose of our lives, where their deepest meaning lies: in knowing and serving God.  In doing that, he judges, we even achieve something of a share in the divine happiness.  I think it is clear that if he had thought there were no divine beings, he would have found considerably less value and satisfaction in philosophical contemplation.


AA: In what way (if any), does Aquinas’ conception of ‘the life of the mind’ different from the Aristotelian one? To what extent is this difference inhere in Aquinas’ theology? How relevant is Aquinas’ account of ‘the life of the mind’ to non-Christians in general and in particular to secular readers?

SB: Aquinas endorses Aristotle’s conception very strongly.  But yes, his own conception also differs from it, and this is because of his theological beliefs.  He is convinced that the God whom Aristotle glimpsed, admired, and served from afar, has spoken directly to us, sought to teach us about Himself, and even offered us the possibility of sharing in the life of His mind, in an amazingly intimate and personal way, as His children and His friends.  And so for Aquinas the life of contemplation is above all meditation on the Word of God.  But he thinks that philosophy – good, sound philosophy, pursued according to its own demands – can be very useful in that meditation.


I am not sure what to say about how relevant his account is to non-Christians and to secular readers. It seems to me that for him, the question of how relevant it is to them would really be the question of how relevant it is to his Master’s desire that they come to know Him, how it might serve to open their minds to His light.  Aquinas would think that this is what people need most, whether they realize it or not.


AA: How relevant, do you think, is the notion of life of contemplation to contemporary life? 

SB: Perhaps we have lost the sense of the “wonderfulness” of things, stifled that natural desire to understand.  The screen dazzles, but it does not produce wonder; if anything it hypnotizes.  That is slavery.  Perhaps this is because we have lost contact with the natural world.  It is fascinating even to look at, and even more fascinating to understand.  The mind tires of seeing the same thing on the screen every day; not of seeing the same natural things.


I think contemplation is all the more relevant today, all the more urgent, for being so widely ignored.

The Anxiety of Loss and the Anxiety of Meaning: Part Two

farewell to summer

This is a two part series. Part One, “Anxiety and Loss”, posted yesterday.

Part Two: Rationality and the Anxiety of Meaning


While one formal characteristic of human life—that of desires and ends—prompts the anxiety of loss, we can see now how the other, rationality, renders us vulnerable to the anxiety of meaning. Rationality involves reflection on our ends that in turn can bring about the anxiety of meaning. In reflecting on them we may either approve or disapprove of them. We may, for example, take our ends to be valuable and thus delight in the bliss of pursuing conscious valuable life. But we may also fall into despair in realizing that ends we held valuable and labored to secure are in fact of no value. Thus, one may realize that a project one was committed to (e.g., promoting communism or nation-building), is, in fact, misguided and valueless; such realization can be devastating. However, such realizations do not in themselves constitute the anxiety of meaning. Rather than residing in the realization that one end or another has no value, the anxiety of meaning consists in recognizing that such realization is always a possibility; that just as I realize now that my enormous efforts to become a Sudoku champion were in vain because I see no value in being a Sudoku champion, similarly, it is always possible that I may realize that my other ends are of no value. Even worse, realizing we cannot ground values in reasons, leads us to recognize that value and worth cannot be secured and fortified; that it is always possible to lose sight of that which once seemed of worth to us. For, after all, rational justifications are finite, and if we are asked to provide them in support of the value we see in our ends, they will eventually give out and we are left without rational grounds to hold these ends valuable. Our very capacity to rationally reflect on the value of our ends, then, leads to the realization that our values are never fully grounded and secure.


If the story of Job symbolizes loss, Ecclesiastes epitomizes meaninglessness. When King Solomon lamented “vanity of vanities; all is vanity” he was a man with as much confidence, achievement and possession as one can hope for. Hence, clearly, he laments not the loss of that which he loves and values but rather the absence of worth and value; the waning and depletion of value from the world. In the absence of value, King Solomon asks “(w)hat profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?” This question expresses the anxiety over whether what we toil for might be without worth at all, and therefore pointless.


So far we have seen that the anxieties of loss and meaning are bound up with our rational being; they are not mere accidents, but they are also not essential. They are, for lack of a better term, un-essential or un-rational aspects of human life; connected to our rationality through rationality’s negation—and hence internally linked to rationality and its intrinsic shortcomings. [1] With an understanding of the shared un-rational nature of these anxieties, we can now see how they relate deeply to one other: each anxiety both excludes the other and promises redemption from the other. A person agonizingly anxious of loss may envy her stoic friend who sees less value in his ends and consequently suffers less from the prospects of their loss. And vice versa, he who depressively conceives of no meaning in life may wish for his friend’s deep immersion in her values. Each sees hope in the condition of the other; the one wishes to value more, the other to value less, and we can imagine one oscillating between the two poles of anxiety in a wish to find the middle way between them. This is the doctrine of the mean in relation to the form of our practical life.


Accordingly, it appears, the human lot is at best to find the mean between these poles, or at least to oscillate gently between them. We may think about finding the right balance between the two anxieties as a virtue—a mean between two vices. But what assures us that we will not lose our grip of the mean and slip back to one of the extremes? Even in maintaining balance, we are vulnerable to the anxiety that nothing secures this balanced state; that it is forever subject to changes beyond our control. A famous Chasidic proverb by Rabi Nachman of Breslav goes “the whole world in its entirety is a very narrow bridge.” If a man spends his life on a narrow bridge, leading nowhere (it is the entire world, after all), it appears that there is no better thing for him to do than to maintain balance and forever live in fear of falling down to the abyss of either of the anxieties. Is this truly the best we can hope for? Is there no way to transcend this precariousness human condition?


The rest of Rabi Nachman’s proverb may suggest that there is another way. Here is the full proverb:

The whole world in its entirety is a very narrow bridge.

And the most important thing is not to be afraid at all.

The transcendence offered by Rabi Nachman is one in which there is a sharp awareness of the inescapable human condition, but at the same time, an insistence that we must not live in fear. The promise resides not in running away from the human condition but in a cleared-eyed recognition of it. But once we recognize it, how can we avoid being afraid?


I shall conclude with an answer suggested by Job and King Solomon. Job, right after having lost almost all his loved ones and earthly possessions, says: “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Coping with loss, and the possibility of loss, comes with an awareness that all of it comes from God and is thanks to God. This awareness allows one to see a point in the loss since it is not a mere outcome of human fragility but a part of God’s intention. It is by virtue of realizing this that one can overcome, or at least live with, the anxiety of loss: the loss is one part of God’s plan and hence, though it may torment us, it is a constituent of the good. As long as we trust in God, we are not afraid. King Solomon’s lamentations end with the words “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole of man.” In other words, we can feel safe that the world and our ends are valuable if we trust in God. It is through the fear of God that we are freed of our anxiety of meaning. The ends given by God’s commandments are of value we cannot doubt as long as we have faith. In faith, the world cannot be bereft of value and meaning. Through faith, Rabi Nachman’s imperative is fulfilled. One can stand in the world, which is nothing but narrow bridge, with confidence, and without fear of being engulfed by the two essential human anxieties.


[1] I am here referring, unfortunately quite crudely, to an idea developed by professor Irad Kimhi. I hope to make more justice to his thoughts in future posts.


Amichai Amit is PhD student in philosophy at the University of Chicago. His research concerns the foundations of ethics and normativity. He also has strong interests in the history of philosophy (ancient and German idealism) and existentialism. He previously received an MA in Philosophy from Tel-Aviv University.

The Anxiety of Loss and the Anxiety of Meaning: Part One



This is a two part series. Part Two, “Rationality and the Anxiety of Meaning”, posts tomorrow.

Part One: Anxiety and Loss

It is of our very nature as rational animals to reflect on our life. We do not only pursue ends, but also ask whether our ends are good and whether our life as a whole is going well. We might say that our rational practical capacity, the capacity to question and justify our ends, allows us an ethical life. By virtue of our reason we may amend our ways and also live with the knowledge that our life and the ends we pursue are as they should be. However, along with the ethical light bestowed by reason come worries unique to rational beings like us. Being able to question our ends opens the possibility of doubt and skepticism about the worth of those ends and the worth of our life as a whole. And with our comprehension of the possibility of change comes the worry that we may lose that which is of worth. In following the light of reason we are haunted by the shadows of anxiety.


Human reflection on anxiety has always accompanied the rational reflection on the good life (ethics). However, it sometimes appears that unlike the rational contemplation of human life (ethics) that has given rise to systems of thought, the shadowy realm of anxiety is formless and particular; subject matter for the human imagination and artistic creation, rather than for rational systematic philosophy. But since anxiety comes with practical rationality, it is forever marked by the contour of reason. Though anxiety may lack the internal rational articulation of ethics, it bears eternal witness to the rational anatomy of ethics. In what comes next I propose that from our nature as rational animals, i.e., beings with both desires and reason, follows two essential kinds of anxieties: the anxiety of meaning and the anxiety of loss. The anxiety of meaning concerns the apprehension that our life and ends are meaningless and worthless. The anxiety of loss concerns the dread that whatever is of worth, may—and eventually will—change and degenerate.


But before I show in what sense these two anxieties are essential and follow from our rational nature, an important distinction is in order. Anxiety is not identical to fear and has a different relation to our rationality. In attempting to distinguish between ‘fear’ and ‘anxiety’ it is often said that fear has an object (say, a menacing stray dog), and anxiety does not; fear is a response to a real threat, whereas anxiety isn’t. In other words, while fear is infused with reasons (“the stray dog is about to attack me, this is why I’m afraid!”), anxiety isn’t. This distinction provides a negative understanding of anxiety; namely, through its not being in the space of reasons, i.e. its being non-rational. However, it is less often noted that anxiety is entirely tied with reason, and while it has no object (or content) of its own, it arises from the form of our practical reason. What do I mean by the form of practical reason? I mean that which pertains to practical reason regardless of any specific ends (contents). Thus, regardless of what one’s pursuits in life are, as an agent one must have pursuits, must have ends; must have desires. Bereft of desires one has no reasons to act at all (consider clinical depression). Accordingly, having desires, we may say, is a formal characteristic of creatures like us. Another formal characteristic comes from our rationality. As noted earlier, as rational agents, we also reflect on our ends, both to see whether they are attainable (and how) and to see whether they are worthy. Accordingly, the capacity to rationally assess and evaluate one’s end and the means to one’s ends is a formal characteristic of our practical being. We see then that these two aspects of human agency, desire and reason, are formal aspects in the sense that they hold regardless of one’s actual objects of desires. Whether one desires to be a lawyer, a priest, spend time with one’s family or watch football, qua rational agent one has desires and reason – both capacities constitute the form of human agency. In light of this, we see that anxiety, unlike fear, transpires from the very form of human agency. The anxiety of loss transpires from having objects of desire (ends), the anxiety of meaning from being able to rationally consider our ends.


I now turn to elaborate on the two essential anxieties. Desiring, for finite creatures like us, comes with the perennial risk of loss. As conscious beings, we are conscious of this risk as internal to our human condition. We are aware of it as a formal characteristic of our life. As such, rather than being a mere unfortunate fact of human psychology, the anxiety of loss is bound with the form of human life; even the happy life. Part of human happiness consists of desires, most importantly, of care and love, for people, ideas and projects. For instance, family, friends, community and vocation, constitute such central objects of care and love, and in their absence we consider life deficient. These are some of the core objects of human desire (ends) and few would voluntarily opt for life bereft of them (though this is perhaps not at all a matter of choice). But along with having these ends comes the realization that we can lose them. Traditionally, the figure of Job poignantly symbolizes the fragility of human life—how a good life, a life rich with family, friends, and possessions, can always fall into pieces. Being finite beings we always stand in danger of losing that which is precious to us and so, a painful shadow lurks even in the happiest life. The consciousness of our fragility and constant risk of losing (or never getting) what is good in our lives is the anxiety of loss.


Amichai Amit is PhD student in philosophy at the University of Chicago. His research concerns the foundations of ethics and normativity. He also has strong interests in the history of philosophy (ancient and German idealism) and existentialism. He previously received an MA in Philosophy from Tel-Aviv University.


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.