On “Aevum Measures” by Steven Toussaint

AdobeStock_63718293.jpeg

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

infallible

and out of both

bewilder

 

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

deliver

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

spherical

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

embellishes

with mordents pricked

from erstwhile soaring

albatross

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

changefulness

in fauxbourdon

where devils scourged

Gregorians

in antiphon

where any pleasure

fifths afforded

flights aborted measure

notes neglected bird-

inflected

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.

Two Models of What a Virtuous Person Would Do

14767854670_e2dc25446b_z
Chicago From Fullerton Beach. Photo by Chris Smith.

In philosophical literature about virtue, correct behavior is cashed out or, at least identified, in terms of what a virtuous agent would do. This idea is sometimes traced to Aristotle’s claim that the mean lies where a person of practical wisdom would determine it to lie. It finds its modern expression in Rosalind Hursthouse’s thesis that an act is right if and only if it is what a virtuous agent would characteristically do.

Explanation of correct behavior by reference to virtuous agents is partly tied to thinking there can be no canon of what is right, no general procedure for determining what it is right to do. Even if we cannot precisely specify what a virtuous agent would do, we can note an ambiguity in our understanding of the virtuous agent: does being virtuous mean doing what is best or doing what is good (enough)? That is, there are two models employed to understand what a virtuous agent does. These models may not tell us how to reach any particular decision, but will give us an idea of how a virtuous agent approaches decisions or the form such decisions take.

One model we might describe as a superlative or maximizing model. According to this model, a right act is the best act, or the most important one, or the one we have most reason to do, or the one that the situation calls for. Most commonly, if an act is right, on this model, it will be the unique right action for the situation, and one we are obligated to perform. And determining which act is right requires considering the available options for action, for rightness is determined by comparison with other action we could perform.

The second model we can characterize as a threshold or satisfaction model. According to this model, an act is right if it is good enough, meets a certain threshold or standard, or satisfies a condition in isolation from other available actions. When an act is right 0n this model it is usually one of many acts that are right in the situation. No one of them is obligated, but each is permissible.

These models are not always kept separate, sometimes causing us to slide from one into the other, though they have different implications. I also think that most people either presuppose the former or find it hard not to accept. For instance, it is sometimes suggested that a virtuous person is a perfect person, and it would seem that a perfect person does what is best. Alternatively, it is hard to deny that we can go right if we X even if there is more reason to Y. Now unlike a utilitarian view where there is a single value to be maximized, a good human life, on a virtue ethical view, is composed of different kinds of activities, like the exercise of different virtues. Part of the problem is determining from among these valuable activities which to engage in and when. For instance, I may have the opportunity to do something generous by volunteering my time or trying to cheer up a friend, or I may have the opportunity to take care of a standing responsibility, say to grade some papers. A virtuous person, according to the first model, can’t just maximize a single value. Rather she considers which opportunity it is more important to pursue given the facts of the situation and what kind of response the situation calls for. So if I have said I will return the papers early tomorrow, I should spend my time grading rather than doing something generous.

This model is tempting because of how easily it fits with certain decisions, especially when a decision is forced upon us or when we are committed to satisfying multiple interests. If I am on my way to fulfill a promise and an accident occurs in which a person needs immediate attention, then since I likely cannot both keep the promise and help, I need to decide which is more important. Or, again, if I have to do some grading this week but also want to have dinner with friends, it may be that circumstances determine that I have to do most of the grading today. Then it makes sense to speak of doing what is most important or what the situation calls for. But most situations do not call for anything in particular, and it is strained to speak as if we are always in a (“moral”) situation.

In what follows, I suggest two ways the maximizing model has difficulties incorporating aspects of a good human life.

I am going to assume that temperance is a virtue. Temperance is that trait that consists in being well disposed toward the pursuit of pleasures of the body: those connected with eating, having sex and doing drugs. One effect of temperance is to counteract the human tendency to overindulge our bodily pleasures. Yet if the virtues are connected with living a good human life, then temperance cannot prescribe denying bodily pleasures altogether. Under-indulgence of these pleasures is as problematic as overindulgence of them. For instance, an intimate partnership is part of a good human life. A healthy sex life is necessary for that partnership to go well and a healthy amount of sex is necessary for a healthy sex life. Again, we can be prone to drink to excess and that should be avoided. Yet as Peter Geach remarks, we do not always need to have our wits about us, and when we do not there is something good about the pleasures of drinking.

I am skeptical that the maximizing model can accommodate this account of temperance. On that model, a virtuous agent does what there is most reason to do. So if a virtuous agent indulges in drink or sex that is what is most important to do or what the situation calls for. This fails to fit how we think about deciding in such situations. We rarely compare the option of having sex with our partner to the other available opportunities. (This would be a mood-killing one thought too many.) Further, the cases in which having sex with my partner will satisfy the description “doing what is most important” or “what the situation calls for” must be rare. Having sex when it does meet these descriptions would run counter to having a healthy sex life and thus, also, to temperance forming part of a good human life.

I think the maximizing model will have similar trouble accommodating the pursuit of our personal interests. A good human life requires in addition to virtue a place for our own projects and for our own leisure. But enjoying some leisure time is rarely what it is most important to do. That description seems most fitting when we’ve worked so hard that we absolutely need a break. Indeed, if we think of comparing what else we could be doing with our time instead of spending it leisurely, almost anything else may win out.

Though I cannot begin to justify this here (or perhaps elsewhere), the maximizing model seems to distort what we generally pursue in our lives. On this model, we are meant to do what is most important, and given the role of the virtues in making a person good, the concerns of the virtuous would seem to have some primacy in deliberation. It can then easily look like the virtuous agent is always pursuing and trying to satisfy virtuous ends. But we are often just pursuing trivial or personal ends: doing our job, cooking dinner, watching TV, going for a walk, surfing the internet, etc.

This is no knock down argument. It is sufficient, however, to cast doubt on the fittingness of the maximizing model. After all, no reason is given for thinking it is correct. This should point us in the direction of the threshold model.

I will briefly indicate how we might fill in this model on a virtue ethical view. What matters on this model is not comparing our available options in order to select that which is most important. Rather, what matters is the contrast between good and bad. Aquinas claimed that an act is bad if it is bad in any respect, good if it is good in every. Now good and bad on a virtue ethical view are primarily tied to the virtues: an act is bad if it conflicts with the virtues or is in some way vicious. If there is no middle ground between good and bad—no acts that are indifferent—then an act that is not bad in any way is good. An act is right not by being the best act or the most important one but by being consistent with the demands of the various virtues.


Zack Loveless is a Ph.D. student in philosophy at the University of Chicago, and a graduate assistant with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

University of South Carolina to host lecture on the relationship of the humanities and happiness Dec. 14

WGM_151215_1036
Talbot Brewer at the December 2015 working group meeting of the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

 

How do the humanities matter in a chaotic 21st century? That’s the question one of the nation’s top philosophers and ethics experts will tackle in a public talk Dec. 14 at the University of South Carolina.

 

Talbot Brewer, a professor from the University of Virginia, will speak at 5:30 p.m. in the School of Law auditorium. His talk, titled “What Good are the Humanities?” is part of a research project that is led in part by the University of South Carolina and brings together scholars from around the world to study the facts that lead to happiness and the meaning of life. The event, which is free and open to the public and includes a reception. Advance registration is requested.

 

Brewer says it’s not the world’s pace or its constant barrage of words and images that keeps people from finding meaning in literature, art or philosophy. It’s the struggle for people to adjust and sustain their attention and quiet their minds.

 

“By creating a space within that we can nurture such habits of mind and put them to their proper use, we make room for a kind of self-cultivation that has become increasingly rare, despite all the lip service we pay to authentic self-expression,” says Brewer, a professor and chairman of UVA’s philosophy department and a specialist in ethics, political philosophy and moral psychology.

 

Connecting with human emotion and the human condition through art, theater or literature can give meaning to one’s own life, Brewer says.

 

“When pursued in the right spirit, the humanities can deepen one’s experience of life, and that is an enormous gift,” he says.

 

That gift is the basis for the research project, “Virtue, Happiness and the Meaning of Life,” which is co-directed by Carolina philosopher Jennifer Frey and University of Chicago philosopher Candace Vogler . It is funded by a $2.1 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

 

For more information about the research, visit the project website. For more information about Brewer’s talk, contact Frey at frey.jenn@gmail.com.


Margaret “Peggy” Ryan Binette is Associate Director of Public Relations for the Office of Communications & Public Affairs at the University of South Carolina.

 

Do They Still Play the Blues in Chicago? The Virtues of Being a Cubs Fan

maxresdefault

On November 3rd, Cubs fans everywhere woke up—many of them happily hung-over—to the reality of the Chicago Cubs as World Series champions. For people of my generation and older, this is a truly bizarre feeling that changes the existential meaning of what it means to be a Cubs fan.

Professional sports can easily be dismissed as little more than a bread-and-circus diversion in our consumer society, but they also obviously function as dramatic ritual—providing a civic, cathartic experience of the agonistic nature of life, and, at their best, instilling some kind of wisdom or virtue along the way. So what are the virtues of being a Cubs fan, and how does that change now that the most epic losers in the history of American sports are, incredibly, the champs?

Most Cubs fans of my age became fans when we were too young to know better, to realize that rooting for a team that in 1963 (when I was born) had already gone 55 years without a World Series was potentially dooming oneself to a lifetime of sports-fan misery. But if as a kid, you walked up the ramps into the seats at Wrigley and saw that field of dreams tucked into the North Side of Chicago, watched countless of the 130-plus games a year televised on WGN, and imbibed the optimism of Cubs’ announcer Jack Brickhouse, you were hooked.

If suffering is indeed good for the soul, then for those of us who are not religious in any traditional theological sense being a Cubs fan has provided a regular dose of salutary expiation. A constant reminder that life is full of failure and absurdity–lots of absurdity. From billy goats, to black cats, to ground balls through Leon Durham’s legs, to that poor Cubs fan Steve Bartman who was only doing instinctively what any fan does when a foul ball is hit their way. George F. Will even wrote somewhere that if the Cubs ever won the World Series, it would be a sure sign of the apocalypse, because the meek would finally have inherited the earth. On this logic, the Cubs’ victory felt eerily like a harbinger of an apocalyptic result in the presidential election.

Will has argued that being a Cubs fan offers training in a conservative world-view, testifying that his own “gloomy temperament received its conservative warp from early and prolonged exposure to the Chicago Cubs.” Decades upon decades of losing drives home the conservative wisdom that “the world is a dark and forbidding place where most new knowledge is false, most improvements are for the worse, the battle is not to the strong, nor riches to men of understanding, and an unscrupulous Providence consigns innocents to suffering.”[1] Presumably, such experience instills conservative virtues of individual responsibility in a world where one should expect no help, and obedience to traditional authorities and values that have been forged as bulwarks in this hostile world.

But Cubs-inspired lessons of perseverance do not belong to conservatives alone. MSNBC host and Cubs fan Chris Hayes has suggested that the Cubs victory—snatched in the tenth inning of game seven from the jaws of a 109th straight year of defeat—is best understood in terms of existential philosopher Albert Camus’ “Myth of Sisyphus,” which Hayes reports is his father’s favorite essay. Facing the question of how “we find joy or meaning in a world that so reliably deals us disappointment, cruelty and heartbreak,” Hayes quotes Camus’ conclusion that “the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy,” even as he is eternally doomed to roll that damned stone back up the hill each day with no prospect of success. This attitude, Hayes, argues, is “a pretty great guide for a life of work in social justice like my dad, or education like my mom, or organizing like my brother, or politics, or broadcasting for that matter.” Hayes’ father reminded him of this ethos as the Cubs victory appeared to be slipping away in the bottom of the eighth inning of game seven, and Hayes concludes that the Cubs’ subsequent victory has not changed but only reinforced this essential truth: “as joyous as that moment of victory was, … the fact is even if they had lost that game, as heartbroken as I would have been, it still all would have been worth it, honestly. … [K]eep pushing that rock no matter what, is a pretty damn great way to go through life. Thanks to the Cubs for teaching me that.”[2]

I find Hayes’ formulation fitting, but as a scholar of the American pragmatic tradition, I would be more inclined to describe the virtues of being a Cubs fan in terms of the meliorism that runs from Emerson through William James and John Dewey. After all, doesn’t the national pastime deserve an American philosophy? Meliorism, as James defines it, is a tragic optimism that posits a genuinely pluralistic world, one with real contingency and tragic loss, where our human beliefs and actions are meaningful because they may help create a better future. Meliorists are optimistic because they believe that a world like ours, with its ever-present possibility of tragic failure, is not only endurable but in fact well-suited to our agonistic human nature, to our need for meaningful struggle. Pragmatists posit a world that is malleable, but resistant, where our virtues have meaning because they must struggle against the failures we face in life, and where conversely life’s failures are to be embraced because they call forth our virtues.[3] As Emerson puts it, in a Nietzschean mood, “Passions, resistance, danger, are educators. We acquire the strength we have overcome. Without war, no solider; without enemies, no hero. The sun were insipid, if the universe were not opaque.”[4] Or, as he puts it in the more muted optimism of his great essay “Experience,” “Never mind the ridicule, never mind the defeat: up again, old heart!”[5]

Such philosophizing—whether of Will’s, Camus’, or Emerson’s variety—may be too earnest and high-toned for the lowly case of the Cubs. For the Cubs fans I know, dealing with decades of failure has not bred gloom and doom or even an existential courage in the face of it. Instead, being a Cubs fan has instilled a self-deprecatory humor and a sense irony that is itself a powerful resource to carry through life. Being able to laugh at the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune not only cushions the blows, but perhaps more importantly prevents you from taking yourself too seriously. The humor of rooting for the hapless Cubs, if tinged with a black sense of the absurd futility of life, was always suffused with that sunny, misplaced optimism of Jack Brickhouse and Ernie Banks, and saturated with the Falstaffian gusto of Harry Caray, whose creedo that “You can’t beat fun at the old ball-park” was true even when the Cubs lost 100 games.

When that ballpark was Wrigley Field, Cubs fans always had a reason to love baseball, no matter how pathetic their team was. Brickhouse, Banks, and Caray, (not to mention Ron Santo) never lived to see the Cubs win the World Series, just like the countless departed parents and grandparents who I know were on the minds of Cubs fans during this World Series run (like my own departed mom and uncle, both born and raised on the North Side). But this sad fact doesn’t dispel the optimism or the humor. The optimism of being a Cubs fan has, for me, always been funny precisely because I know it’s misplaced. To express a Brickhouse-ian optimism about the Cubs has always been a self-conscious exercise in being ridiculous. And that comic attitude is, for my mind, probably the most salutary virtue of being a Cubs fan.

This self-deprecating ability to laugh at the futility of being a Cubs fan is perfectly captured in the sardonic humor of Steve Goodman’s classic ode “A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request.”[6] (In a whole other league than the saccharine “Go Cubs, Go” he also penned).[7] Goodman wrote the song when he was himself terminally ill with leukemia. He died four days before the Cubs clinched the National League East Division title in 1984. Of course Goodman didn’t miss a championship, since the Cubs choked away that opportunity for a Series berth when they lost the last three games of a five-game series against the Padres and that no-good lout Steve Garvey. The refrain of the song runs as follows:[8]

Do they still play the blues in Chicago
When baseball season rolls around?
When the snow melts away,
Do the Cubbies still play
In their ivy-covered burial ground?
When I was a boy they were my pride and joy
But now they only bring fatigue,
To the home of the brave
The land of the free
And the doormat of the National League.

In one sense, the Cubs’ victory has now changed all of this. The Cubs team Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have put together is young and extremely talented, and will likely be a threat to go deep into the playoffs for a number of years to come. What is truly different is that, if and when they do, Cubs fans will be able to enjoy the ride without any existential dread of impending doom hanging over our heads. We’ll be able to root, root, root for the Cubbies, and, if they don’t win it will be a shame indeed—but, no worries, wait till next year!

Of course this victory signals something of an identity crisis for Cubs fans. I’m happy for the young Cubs fans who won’t grow up with the kind of angst fans of my age have lived with, and I was ecstatic when the Cubs got the final out in that wild game seven. But decades of losing has been essential to the love I feel for the “loveable losers” from the North Side. Would I trade that for the life experience of a Yankees fan, or a Patriots fan, or a St. Louis Cardinals fan? Where’s the challenge in that?

So whither now, Cubs fans? Do they still play the blues in Chicago, in the words of Steve Goodman’s anthem? Where will we go for the salutary dose of losing the Cubs have reliably provided for the past century-plus? What do we do now? Root for the vanquished Indians, who’ve taken over the honor of baseball’s longest run of futility?

Chicagoans needn’t worry. The Bears are 2-6, haven’t won the Super Bowl in over 30 years, and the Aaron Rodgers-led Packers promise to humiliate us for years to come. I predict plenty of sports futility in our future.


[1] George F. Will, “The Cubs and Conservatism” (1974), in Bunts, New York: Touchstone/Simon and Schuster, 1999 [1998], 21. I am indebted to my childhood friend Phil Rosenthal—a life-long White Sox fan—for pointing me to this essay of Will’s.

[2] Chris Hayes, All In, November 3, 2016. Transcript. Web. http://www.msnbc.com/transcripts/all-in/2016-11-03

[3] For a discussion of the melioristic philosophies of Emerson, James, and Dewey as they relate to a democratic ethics of individualism, see my study Reconstructing Individualism: A Pragmatic Tradition from Emerson to Ellison, New York: Fordham Univ. Press, 2012.

[4] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Considerations by the Way,” in Essays and Lectures, New York: Library of America, 1983, 1084.

[5] Emerson, “Experience,” Essays and Lectures, 492.

[6] You can see Goodman performing this classic on a rooftop overlooking right field at Wrigley on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7xBxZGQ1dJk

[7] Wikipedia reports that Goodman “wrote “Go, Cubs, Go” out of spite after then GM Dallas Green called ‘A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request’ too depressing.” Whether or not this bit of crack reporting is true, the story is too good to give up. Surely the fate of the 1984 Cubs shows Goodman’s sardonic take was wiser than Dallas Green. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Goodman

[8] For the complete lyrics, go to: http://www.baseball-almanac.com/poetry/po_cubs.shtml


Jim Albrecht is Professor of English at Pacific Lutheran University.

What Pokemon Go Teaches Us About Virtue

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Play

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Self-transcendence

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

 

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

k81Laki
“Pokemon Go takes me to Black Lives Matter Protest” by Jesse Samuel Anderson.
http://imgur.com/gallery/brlde

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

 

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



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

What Makes a Scientist Good? A Psychological Exploration

Robert Rathbun Wilson Hall
Robert Rathbun Wilson Hall at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Photo by Chris Smith.

Why do people do what they do? Why is science so important to some people? What does it offer to them that other activities do not? Considering the ends of science is one starting point for considering the particularities of virtue in science. Addressing the role of virtue in science entails understanding the purposes of science. Most people would agree that its purpose is to systematically expand human knowledge and enhance human capabilities to control their world. However, perhaps more interesting, from a psychological perspective, is that individual scientists have their own reasons for engaging in science that may be more or less aligned with this general purpose. What are these reasons? What goals, virtuous or not, actually drive scientists in their work? What goals do they think scientists should pursue? 

 

The career paths of scientists can be challenging and treacherous, given the explosion of advanced degrees in science (see Emanuele Ratti’s post on this). This has led to an increasingly long pathway to a permanent position in academia. Psychologically, this situation is ripe for individuals on all sides to focus on extrinsic rewards – seeking publications, status, and financial success – rather than intrinsic ones. Moreover, stressful environments promote the stress reaction, heightening self-protective pursuits rather than pursuing goals driven by intrinsic motives (like curiosity or valuing the contribution one can make to other’s lives) and the common good.

Purpose and meaning are ideas with a long history in psychology, stemming from the work of Victor Frankl. Purpose is the pursuit of a meaningful goal intended to influence the world in a positive way (see McAdam’s work on generativity). This corresponds with both rich intrinsic motivation (a pursuit driven by one’s values and interests, rather than by external incentives) and the pursuit of the common good. Further, there is a wealth of evidence that pursuing such goals leads to high levels of performance. Thus, I invite you to consider an approach to virtue in science focused on the what, why, and how of goal pursuit through ‘purpose’.

Purpose can be broken down into several components. For example, how one engages in the pursuit of a goal is important, and the form this engagement takes matters for the evaluation of virtue (see this post on the Virtue blog). Virtue after all emerges not only from seeking the good, but from pursuing that good well, that is, through productive and moral engagement. If I pursue my research goals unethically (i.e., through dishonesty), then, while I am doing so, I am enacting a vice. If, on the other hand, I pursue my research in a way that is honest, diligent, and collegial, then I may be developing at least a budding virtue.

Personal meaning is also essential to purpose. For Frankl, meaning can be experienced through ‘(1) creating a work or doing a deed; (2) experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering’. The pursuit of scientific goals emphasizes the first two forms of meaning. Meaning is a personal response to one’s experience. This is why meaning is deeply related to ideas like calling and vocation (see Michael Steger’s post exploring this).

Finally, purpose relates to moral goals – pursuing that which is good. This is a challenging dimension of science, as knowledge unrelated to use is difficult to call moral or immoral. One can, for instance, pursue knowledge which, through misuse or abuse, can cause harm. On some level, it is easier to evaluate the ends of engineering, which are more concrete, than the ends of more basic science, like sequencing the genome of a species. Nonetheless, the pursuit of good ends is essential to virtue (see this post from Jean Porter).

Virtue enables expert purposeful engagement in science. This includes pursuing moral goals, having moral motives for those goals, and pursuing those goals through the effective and moral means. This also necessitates, given the technical nature of science, the judgment and expertise to accomplish these goals effectively. Ideally, this judgment and expertise includes both tacit knowledge of how to conduct scientific research effectively and the capacity to articulate and communicate one’s understanding to others. While I have begun to describe a potential psychology of virtue here, I intend to further explore engagement, personal meaning, and the pursuit of the common good as they relate to specific virtues in future posts.

Why is science important? It is unique for the power of knowledge it generates. However, given this power, there is also an inherent moral responsibility among scientists to direct their pursuits appropriately and to work to ensure the proper utilization of their findings for the common good. Any scientist who fails to do so cannot be called virtuous.


This post originally appeared on Origins. Natures. Futures., a blog out of the University of Notre Dame’s  Center for Theology, Science and Human Flourishing. Timothy Reilly is a post-doctoral fellow in Psychology at CTSHF, whose research examines interventions to enhance psychological well-being, college student development, moral identity, the role of practices in self development, and virtue development. 

A New Center for Practical Wisdom at the University of Chicago

 

Wisdom class
Howard Nusbauum (center) is also a scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.Photo by The JJ Effect.

The Center for Practical Wisdom at the University of Chicago aims to deepen scientific understanding of wisdom and its role in choices of everyday life. Research at the center is geared towards individual development of wisdom and the circumstances in which people are most likely to make wiser decisions. Core research projects at the center include a range of topics including epistemic humility, stress resilience, individual differences in wisdom, and impact of language.

 

The center connects scientists, scholars, educators, and students internationally who are interested in studying wisdom. Through the wisdom research network and annual wisdom research forums, the center provides guidance for dissemination of current wisdom studies as well as initiates new research in wisdom. The Center for Practical Wisdom website provides a space for networking, a database of the latest wisdom-related articles, publications, and news items, wisdom based research tools and measures, and forums for online discussions.

 

The John Templeton Foundation provided seed funding for the Center while collaborative efforts are supported by a variety of sources including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and federal agencies. Affiliated organizations to the Center for Practical Wisdom include The Institute for Human Flourishing led by Nancy Snow at the University of Oklahoma and the Wisdom and Culture Lab led by Igor Grossmann at the University of Waterloo, among others.

 

Center logo square copy

The Center’s accomplishments and resources are shared through social media, the Wisdom Research YouTube Channel, and the Center for Practical Wisdom e-newsletter.


Jean L. Ngoc Matelski-Boulware is Assistant Director of Communications & Research at the Center for Practical Wisdom.