Searching for Jehanne

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I was born in the village of Domremy, Susan Aurinko. On exhibit at LUMA (Loyola University Museum of Art) in Chicago.

 

In 2013, Chicago artist Susan Aurinko visited a 12th century chateau in France’s Loire Valley that was once the temporary home of Joan of Arc. Aurinko returned again and again to photograph the actual places where Joan of Arc once lived or visited, using these layered images to explore Joan’s passion, from her inspired childhood to her military victories, brief political triumph, capture, suffering, and martyrdom. The photographic exhibit of Aurinko’s work at the Loyola Museum of Art in Chicago, “Searching for Jehanne: The Joan of Arc Project,” suggests the ways Joan lives on as a cultural and religious icon, preserved in sculpture, film, and popular memory. Many of the photographs in the exhibit are images of statues of Joan praying or striding triumphantly with her banner, superimposed on dark, churchlike interiors. Other photographs show wistful little girls with faraway eyes standing in the woods or next to rural outbuildings. Some images show teenaged young women in chainmail looking devout and vulnerable. These images float towards viewers with varying levels of immediacy, yet because all are housed in thick, dark, ornate frames, we are reminded of Joan’s distance and separation from us by time and constructed memory. Joan’s words, taken from her trial transcripts, accompany each photograph as a kind of narration or inner monologue.

These various photographic images of Joan—some as hard and remote as a marble statue, some as immediate and moving as a little child peering out through her own windblown hair—remind us that Joan is made and remade for us by religion, the state, and the media, but that we also make Joan what we need her to be. Here Joan is emotional, vulnerable, naïve, and devout, swept up inexorably by forces beyond her control that she cannot fully understand. Joan is also unswerving, courageous, and inspired, a person of frankness, conviction, and great integrity who survived not only the medieval battlefield but months of imprisonment, including physical hardship and deprivation, psychological torture, and probable sexual assault at the hands of military captors and religious tormentors.

Looking at these images inspired by Joan, their subject suspended so near, yet fixed at a distance by dark frames of culture and history, I am reminded of Vita Sackville-West’s Saint Joan of Arc, a biography written in the 1930s by one of England’s most prominent women writers, an admirer and self-confessed nonbeliever who eventually admits to new-found respect for miracles and the supernatural as a result of her research into Joan’s life. Like Aurinko’s photographs bringing us close to Joan yet insisting on our inability to really know her, Sackville-West’s biography alternates between feminizing Joan and marveling at the alien nature of her saintly masculinity. Sackville-West attributes Joan’s shrewdness to “feminine intuition,” and downplays the physical vigor that allowed Joan to spend nearly a week in armor without taking it off even to sleep. She dwells on Joan’s frequent tears: “She was, in fact, emotional, and wept copiously at every possible opportunity—as queer a mixture of feminine and masculine attributes as ever relentlessly assaulted the enemy and then must cry on seeing him hurt.”[1] She notes that witnesses described Joan’s impatience as that of “a woman great with child,”[2] and in her biography she sometimes calls Joan “a girl dressed up.”[3] Such strategies are perhaps designed to bring Joan nearer to people who want their saints to be more “normal,” more intelligible as properly-gendered, tender-hearted beings.

At the same time, Sackville-West acknowledges the things about Joan that distance her from the ways many people still think young girls should feel and act. She finds it to be incontrovertible that Joan possessed the gift of prophecy; she also marvels, with nearly religious wonder, that Joan leapt 60 or 70 feet from a tower trying to escape her captors, yet emerged unharmed. She guesses that the Dauphin Charles must have found Joan an “alarming savior,”[4] and imagines that because Joan “was not really a soldier at all; she was not even a man,”[5] she must have had an “astonishing effect”[6] on the troops.

Sackville-West is most impressed by Joan’s courage in leaving her childhood and her village to move beyond the familiar, and seems pleased that unlike many saints, Joan never used expressions like “my heavenly Spouse,” or “my Betrothed.” Sackville-West writes:

She is the least sentimental of saints, and the most practical . . . She is too heroic and bracing to appeal intimately to the average mind. She makes the mistake of being always something over life-size; something which, however much she may command admiration and respect, can never be loved in quite the same personal way as the more human saints.[7]

I laughed when I first read this passage, in part because it is funny, but also because this sentiment about Joan is a common one. Joan remains a strange saint for many people. Despite the extraordinary record we possess of her actual words at her trial, she can seem oddly unknowable. Is this because she leaves her girlhood behind? Is her tender girlhood the thing we cling to as familiar and knowable, because her warrior’s ruthlessness seems too harsh? Sackville-West’s characterization of Joan’s heroically virtuous nature as a “mistake” is a humorous jab at conventional notions that it is more important for a woman to be loved than it is for her to do great things. As these words suggest, it is this ability to be loved that is so reassuring; a woman who does great things without being especially lovable is terrifying. When Sackville-West finally allows herself to imagine Joan as a warrior, she calls her “The Maid,” the title given her by the common people signifying Joan’s status as the figure of myth destined to deliver France from English occupation: “no soft saintly girl, but a stern and angry young captain with very definite ideas of her own,”[8] and “that inexplicable character, the girl-boy captain—La Pucelle.”[9]

Contemplating Joan’s martyrdom allows tenderness and pity to soften Sackville-West’s sense of Joan’s strangeness. Deeply moved by Joan’s death, Sackville-West notes that “many wept,” and notes the care for others Joan demonstrated in warning the priest holding a crucifix for her to get down off her burning pyre. As her biography nears its close, Sackville-West recounts the miracles surrounding Joan’s death without a trace of skepticism—the name of Jesus writ large in the flames, the English soldier who saw a white dove fly out of the fire and wing its way towards France, the executioner traumatically frightened by the refusal of Joan’s heart to burn.

Similarly, Susan Aurinko’s pictures at LUMA also suggest a figure we never quite know, yet who fascinates and moves us. The mystery of Joan’s nature, of virtuous courage at the intersection of human and divine, is the essence of Joan’s appeal, and this sense of mystery pervades these photographs and this installation.

 

The show runs through October 21, 2017 at the Loyola University Museum of Art, 820 North Michigan Avenue. Admission is free through November 11, 2017.

On October 17 from 6:00 to 7:30, LUMA will host a panel with University of Chicago Professor Françoise Meltzer, author of For Fear of the Fire: Joan of Arc and the Limits of Subjectivity; Loyola University Chicago professor Bren Ortega Murphy; and artist Susan Aurinko on “Joan of Arc in Contemporary Culture,” a conversation about the lasting legacy and cultural significance of this venerated saint. For more information go to: https://www.luc.edu/luma/education_outreach/publicprogramsandevents/paneldiscussionjoanofarcincontemporaryculture.shtml

 

[1] Vita Sackville-West, Saint Joan of Arc (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 11.

[2] Saint Joan of Arc, 89.

[3] Saint Joan of Arc, 149.

[4] Saint Joan of Arc, 112.

[5] Saint Joan of Arc, 149.

[6] Saint Joan of Arc, 149.

[7] Saint Joan of Arc, 335.

[8] Saint Joan of Arc, 154.

[9] Saint Joan of Arc, 162.


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

The notion of dependence

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Beethoven’s death mask by Josef Dannhauser

Alberto Arruda was a participant in our 2017 Summer Seminar “Virtue, Happiness, and Self-Transcendence” and is a postdoctoral researcher in philosophy at the University of Lisbon.

During the various sessions of our seminar, the notion of dependence was often mentioned in one way or another. I have decided to write a brief note on this notion in the hope that it might spark a discussion amongst philosophers, theologians and psychologists alike. This note assumes the form of a reflection on a text; and author, that is, I think, a very unlikely candidate in the context of our sessions: Descartes. Perhaps for this reason, and given our prevalent Aristotelianism, I thought this exercise would be interesting, since it challenges some of our dearest assumptions.

 

A brief note on dependence

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“I am not an animal!” protested Spartacus, the very same thought that famously puzzled Descartes in his Meditations. And even though both men were protesting in a similar way, they were not protesting about the same thing at all. While Descartes was complaining about the fact that he couldn’t possibly be reduced to the animal begotten by his parents, the slave was complaining about the fact that he could not be reduced to an animal just because someone had decided to treat him like one. But where the slave might have pointed to the fact that, much like his owner, he also had parents, and perhaps even siblings, who worried about him, Descartes would have maintained that the dependence exhibited by his animal nature did nothing more than conceal his real dependence on God. Now, this is a genuine difference. Although both complain about being reduced to something they know they are not, the nature of Descartes’ complaint is about concealment, while the slave’s is about what is, for him, painfully manifest.

 

If Descartes had lived to encounter, say, Beethoven’s death mask, perhaps he would have maintained, much like Aristotle, that the mask was not the likeness of Beethoven at all. But, where for Aristotle the now dead Beethoven was no longer Beethoven, I mean, that particular depiction was merely the depiction of a Beethoven now missing a part, Descartes would have maintained that the mask of the dead Beethoven was certainly not the likeness of the real Beethoven, but then again, no mask could ever have been – dead or alive.

 

So, an alive and well Beethoven, that is, an intact Beethoven as Aristotle would say, really never was ab initio Beethoven. And now, I can’t quiet imagine what privation meant for Descartes, nor what a status quo ante could have meant for Descartes in relation to both the deterioration and the many privations our bodies do suffer. But I do understand one, I suppose, fundamental aspect of his argument – namely, that the real Beethoven may very well still be somewhere (that is, if he, or it, is still somehow able to think). And this is not exactly the same as saying that the real Beethoven has only now genuinely come to be, I mean, now after the death of his animal part.  For if we were really thinking about Beethoven’s soul, we would have to be thinking about the Beethoven who sinned, the one who sinned through that body, the body now depicted in that death mask. So this Beethoven, the dead Beethoven, was, even for Aristotle, who certainly did not puzzle about the salvation of his soul, not necessarily the Beethoven who used to sin and repent, but certainly the one who did all of those actions and composed all that music, the music that somehow many of us grow up with. But still, what about the question: who was the real Beethoven for Descartes? He was not the body depicted in his death mask – and we do have this intuition, especially when we miss someone who has died – so who was he?

 

And now we know that the reply is challenging and difficult, for he never was that body, nor his thoughts, and certainly not his actions. And so he was not part of the history we inherited. He was always, genuinely, his thinking, but not the falsity he sometimes thought about. Beethoven was, like I am, and so are you, his thinking when it was true. So the evil genius could have robbed him of a world, he could have robbed him of his acting, and I suppose of his sins and redemption, but he could not have robbed him of the faculty that God created, the faculty of proper thinking. And so, Descartes argued he was his thinking; he argued that he was his dependence on God, and now I say dependence, because he could not have created truth, for he was far from perfect, and also, because he could not exist without truth. So Descartes, and Beethoven, and you, and I are our dependence on God; we are, if you want, the faculty we exercise but have not begotten, and so we are all equal before God. Therefore, when any of us takes drugs, we are, for Descartes, so it seems to me, giving the biggest offence we can. We are polluting the very gift we received from God, destroying our election, and really, genuinely, destroying ourselves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Another thought: Descartes somehow had the intuition that he was somewhere in his body, but not like a pilot is in a vessel. This takes away any hope we might have of putting matters in a way that is as clean and simple as talk about separable glassy essences, ghosts in machines and otherwise. And I think there is a lot in this that can be used to somehow detach his theory from an official doctrine of Cartesianism, although I do not dare to dispute that there is a great deal of merit in what has been achieved under this rubric.

But still, what about the thought concerning pilots and vessels? The Descartes of the Meditations never thought about something like occupying more than one body. I suppose such a thought experiment did not seem necessary to him, as it does to a lot of us nowadays. The uniqueness of occupying only one body seemed, perhaps, trivial to him. He did not argue much for it, and so he did not argue much against it. Given his hyperbole, he could have never conclusively known that he had occupied only one body; and I think that there would not be much advantage to doing so, since truly knowing what one is would not be improved by a putative change of body. So Descartes’ argument mentioned uniqueness of body, but not, as we would be tempted to think, in the service of some kind of uniqueness of experience. And now, I have to admit, that at least I do believe in such uniqueness of experience. And as I hinted at before, I do not find this uniqueness entirely void of theological significance either.

However, if we think about it, his metaphor is near perfect for his purpose. Any pilot is far more dependent on his or her vessel than Descartes thought he was on his body (at least this is what he wished to establish with his argument). No pilot is yet a pilot if he or she has never had a vessel, or at least the chance to pilot one. And the pilot who now lacks a vessel is certainly not half a pilot, although he or she is in danger of, perhaps, never again doing what a pilot does. And now we see that for Descartes what I truly am, my thinking, would still be possible even if I did not have a body, as long as God, who I truly depend on for my conservation, would grant me some true thoughts. And so, it seems, I am less dependent on my body for being me than a pilot is on a vessel for being a pilot, even though we are both equally dependent on God for existing at all.

Virtue and Vocation in Science

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Aristotle emphasized the relation of particular social roles, or vocations, to particular virtues. For instance, soldiers should have the virtue of courage. Similarly, justice is central to involvement in politics. What about science? Are there virtues particular to being a good scientist? Is there something distinctive about a vocation to be a scientist? Contemporary virtue ethics offers at least two views of the relevance of virtue in science: facilitation of a flourishing society and following one’s individual dispositions.

 

First, pursuing science may be a meaningful way for an individual to contribute to the flourishing of society. Generally speaking, this is an uncontroversial response–don’t all professions have this aim? So this is insufficient to justify science as an alternative to other practices. The second view offers a solution here: an individual may be more suited–in light of one’s circumstances, dispositions, and skills–to achieve such flourishing through science than through other means. Not everyone is called to be a politician or social worker. Some are more suited to the vocation of science.

 

Taking up the second view in more detail, what kinds of dispositions are important to being a virtuous scientist? Dispositions and skills undoubtedly play an important role in the development of a scientist. Some of these dispositions may be deeply seated in an individual’s psychology, such as one’s ability to focus on the details relevant to a given goal. Bryan Brown and James Gee also emphasize the importance of language skills as a means to engage in practices like science. Further, science is a practice particularly suited to pursuing epistemic ends, aligning it most closely with personality traits like intellect and openness to experience, which are tendencies to pursue intellectual goals. These traits can enable a strong motivation to enter science, which could then serve to develop one’s scientific potential. However, even such motivation is meaningless, in itself, if a budding scientist lacks the capacity to do good scientific work. If one is frequently dishonest, lacks the discipline to collect and analyze data systematically, and is too easily frustrated by the inevitable disappointments that arise in scientific work, one is unlikely to do good work let alone become a virtuous scientist. While this doesn’t mean that we should expect anyone to be a perfect scientist at the outset, some people may just not be well suited to scientific pursuits.

 

Context also matters given the importance of culture to the development of dispositions. If one lacks meaningful opportunities to learn to be a scientist, one will likely take the opportunities to learn that exist in one’s developmental context in another domain. Despite this, some individuals growing up with limited exposure to the science and mathematics make extraordinary contributions to it (for example Srinivasa Ramanujan, a leading mathematician of the early 20th century), so circumstance alone is clearly not enough for a full determination. At the other extreme, some fields may be inundated with qualified candidates due to their status and prestige (see Good Work on contemporary genetics). If one’s field is pursued by too many, then pursuing other opportunities may be more effective in supporting human flourishing and thus more virtuous. This is both because competition for resources can lead to careerism and undermine the field and because there are likely other areas where an individual’s effort may be productive.
What kind of account then would mark a virtuous calling to do science? First, it should fit one’s dispositions, as discussed above, with the proper motives and capacities. Second, an aspiring scientist should pursue science that has a worthwhile possibility of contributing to human flourishing. Thus, a virtuous vocation to science could arise when science is an appropriate pursuit for this individual amidst other available pursuits. This is not to say that other pursuits don’t have a place in the life of a scientist. It may well be the case that pursuing scientific work serves a higher calling, as in practicing science to support environmental causes or to provide for one’s family. It could still be appropriate to think of science as a calling in such cases, but science need not be one’s ultimate or highest calling.

 


Timothy Reilly is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Developing Virtues in the Practice of Science Project. He is a developmental psychologist whose work draws from a variety of approaches, including positive psychology, moral development, sociocultural theory, and action theories of development. He was one of the participants in our 2017 Summer Seminar, Virtue, Happiness, and Self-Transcendence.

This post first appeared on the blog Origins.Natures. Futures.

What To Do With Aggression?

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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

 

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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

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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.

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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.