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

Brock Aquinas Spark

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

farewell to summer

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

Part Two: Rationality and the Anxiety of Meaning

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 


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

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

 

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

Part One: Anxiety and Loss

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 


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

 

On “Aevum Measures” by Steven Toussaint

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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

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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

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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

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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.