Episode 15 Sacred and Profane Love: Faustian Ambitions

In episode 15 of Sacred and Profane Love, titled, “Faustian Ambitions,” I speak with my colleague and neighbor, Professor Anne Pollok, about Johann  Wolfgang von Goethe’s famous tragedy, Faust.  For the purposes of our conversation, we use the Norton Critical Edition, translated by Walter Arndt and edited by Cyrus Hamlin, which is available here.  Goethe’s drama deals with the infinite striving that lies at the heart of the human condition, and how our quest for the transcendent can go terribly awry.

 

Anne Pollok is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina.  She did her Dr. Phil at the Martin Luther University in Halle-Wittenberg, and was a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at Stanford University prior to her appointment at UofSC.  Her main areas of research are in early modern, aesthetics, and 20th century philosophy of culture.

 

Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina. Prior to joining the philosophy faculty at USC, she was a Collegiate Assistant Professor of Humanities at the University of Chicago, where she was a member of the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts and an affiliated faculty in the philosophy department.  She earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, and her B.A. in Philosophy and Medieval Studies (with Classics minor) at Indiana University-Bloomington. Her research lies at the intersection of philosophy of action, ethics, and law, with a particular focus on the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition.  She has published widely on action, virtue, practical reason, and meta-ethics, and has recently co-edited an interdisciplinary volume, Self-Transcendence and Virtue: Perspectives from Philosophy, Theology, and Psychology

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This podcast is generously supported by The Institute for Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America.

Music credits, “Help me Somebody,” by Brian Eno and David Byrne, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.5.

 

 

Episode 14: Walker Percy on Being Lost in the Cosmos

dystopia
In episode 14 of Sacred and Profane Love, “Walker Percy on Being Lost in the Cosmos,” I speak with associate professor of Literature, Jessica Hooten Wilson, about Walker Percy’s dystopian, science fiction novel, Love in the Ruins.  We discuss the darkly comic adventures of Dr. Tom More as he tries to figure out how to live and love in the ruins of a society that seems eerily familiar to our own.  We also discuss Percy’s satirical take on the self-help genre, Lost in the Cosmos.  So bring out the Early Times this weekend, settle down on the porch, and enjoy a conversation about one of our greatest Southern writers.

Jessica Hooten Wilson is associate professor of literature at John Brown University.  She is the author of three books: Giving the Devil his Due: Flannery O’Connor and the Brothers Karamazov, Walker Percy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the Search for Influence, and A Guide to Walker Percy’s Novels. Currently, she is preparing Flannery O’Connor’s unfinished novel,Why Do the Heathen Rage? for publication.

 

This podcast is generously supported by the Institute for Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America. 

Music credits, “Help me Somebody,” by Brian Eno and David Byrne, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.5.

Podcast featured on APA blog

First and foremost, I apologize for the dearth of posts lately.  I had to take a medical leave this semester (yes, I was very sick; and yes, I am fine now) and as a result all non-essential activities (as well as some essential activities) were sacrificed.  But I’m happy to be back online to share some news about the podcast.

Second, I have a new institutional partner and affiliation!  Although I am still releasing a few episodes over the coming months with support from the John Templeton Foundation, going forward next year it will be underwritten by The Institute for Human Ecology, which is a research institute housed at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. The IHE is a multi-disciplinary institute that supports work focused on questions about the nature of human flourishing, so it fits well with my own work.  The IHE has made me a faculty fellow and will continue to support the podcast for as long as it continues to have a loyal following.

Third, the blog has recently been featured on the American Philosophical Association’s blog.  You can read the whole blog post here.  One thing this post does is finally explain my choice of image for the podcast’s logo.

SAPL4podcastimage

Here’s an excerpt from the blog post:

“The logo features a striking image of a battle between divine and earthly love by the Roman artist Giovanni Baglione. Baglione’s painting makes explicit reference to a famous depiction of Cupid by his contemporary Caravaggio, titled amor vincit omnia. In Caravaggio’s painting, Cupid towers triumphantly over the scattered symbols of human striving, clutching his arrows with an impish grin. The title of Caravaggio’s famous piece comes from Virgil’s Eclogues; the full quote it references is “omnia vincit amor; et nos cedamus amori,” which is often translated as, “love conquers all; let us all yield to love.” Although we now associate this phrase with the romantic platitude that only love can overcome all obstacles and divisions, Virgil’s words come from the mouth of the heart sick Gallus, who is conquered by love (Gallus, in anguish from eros unsatisfied, kills himself after uttering these famous last words).

Baglione is playing with these themes in his painting; he responds to Caravaggio’s playful Cupid with a piece that depicts the superior power and triumph of divine over earthly love. Baglione’s image is not hard to interpret, but it has a deeper meaning; Baglione is speaking toCaravaggio directly in his painting—in fact, he is attacking and provoking him (note that the devil’s face bears a non-accidental resemblance to Caravaggio). Baglione and Caravaggio were bitter rivals in the competitive world of Roman art. Although Baglione knowingly imitates Caravaggio’s distinctive style, his admiration is tinged with a jealous envy of Caravaggio’s manifestly superior talent and fame. The painting is (no doubt unintentionally) simultaneously a representation of the triumph of sacred love and a testament to the potential for profane love to lead us into folly and ruin. For it is Baglione’s worldly ambition—his craving for recognition and power as an artist—that creates the bitter resentment and jealousy that constitutes the painting’s deeper meaning. Ironically, Baglione’s depiction of the ultimate triumph of sacred love announces to the world that its creator has been conquered by profane ambition; in attempting to accuse Caravaggio, Baglione unwittingly implicates himself. 

I love Baglione’s painting because it captures the central thrust of my podcast in deliciously ironic fashion, which is to explore the relation between love, virtue, happiness, and life’s purpose or meaning. In each episode we explore how and what we love can conquer in two distinct senses: when well-ordered through the cultivation of virtue, love can help us to conquer ourselves so that we can lead deeply happy lives, but when disordered, love can conquer us, by making us jealous, wrathful, selfish, lustful, and overcome with despair. Moreover, the layers of meaning in the painting—intended and unintended—brings out the fact that we bring our own lives to art, whether as creators or consumers. As someone who thinks of art as a central aspect of human experience, I am interested in the fact that how we look at and interpret art determines how we are affected by it, and how this, in turn, is inevitably bound up in our own life experience; this interpretive and affective dynamic includes most especially our own experiences of passionate desire—its perils and its promise, its profane and sacred dimensions. It is the power of the artist’s representation of love to transform us in a deep and permanent way that interests me—how art potentially shapes our character by changing our imaginative landscape, thereby helping to shape how we ourselves think, feel, and desire.

I have talked about art and morality, but my podcast focuses on literature in particular. I wanted to turn to literature because I believe that it is a very specific mode of access to the truth, especially moral truth. Whereas philosophical theory operates at the level of the abstract and general, literature operates in the particular and the concrete. So, while the philosopher can demonstrate the essential structure of vice, the novelist can show us how vice works to destroy the life of a particular person in a particular way. The novelist operates, not at the level of judgment and belief, but at the level of imagination and perception, which brings us closer to the realm of personal choice and action. I also think that literature is one of the best sources for our knowledge of human nature, which I think is a kind of general self-knowledge. Fiction expands the moral imagination such that we see reflections of ourselves and our own lives in the characters we come to invest ourselves in; in this way it often serves to reveal to us some uncomfortable truths about ourselves. This recognition can serve to correct some of our deep-seated tendencies towards self-deception.”

I’ve got upcoming episodes on Goethe’s Faust and Shakespeare’s King Lear, so fans of the podcast–especially those who take the time to write to me about it–thanks for your patience and stay tuned for new episodes soon!

 

Sacred and Profane Love Episode 13: Jane Austen on the Virtues of Social Life

 

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In episode 13 of Sacred & Profane Love, “Jane Austen on the Virtues of Social Life, I speak with professor Karen Stohr of Georgetown University about how Austen brings into relief the social dimensions of virtue in her novels. We discuss the importance of social roles and environments for the exercise and development of virtue, and how friendship and family life are the best contexts in which virtue can be fostered and strengthened.  I hope you enjoy our conversation!

 

Karen Stohr is the Ryan Family Term Associate Professor of Metaphysics and Moral Philosophy Senior Research Scholar at Georgetown University, and has an appointment at The Kennedy Institute of Ethics. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina, and her B.A. from the University of Notre Dame.  She has published widely within virtue ethics, and has a book forthcoming from Oxford, Minding the Gap: Moral Ideals and Moral Improvement. Dr. Stohr also has a passion for the work of Jane Austen.

Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina. Prior to joining the philosophy faculty at USC, she was a Collegiate Assistant Professor of Humanities at the University of Chicago, where she was a member of the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts and an affiliated faculty in the philosophy department.  She earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, and her B.A. in Philosophy and Medieval Studies (with Classics minor) at Indiana University-Bloomington. Her research lies at the intersection of philosophy of action, ethics, and law, with a particular focus on the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition.  She has published widely on action, virtue, practical reason, and meta-ethics, and has recently co-edited an interdisciplinary volume, Self-Transcendence and Virtue: Perspectives from Philosophy, Theology, and Psychology

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This podcast is a project of Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life, and is made possible through a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

Content copyright the University of South Carolina and the University of Chicago.

Music credits, “Help me Somebody,” by Brian Eno and David Byrne, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.5.

Sacred and Profane Love Episode 12: Meaning, Murder, and Divine Madness

 

Download Episode 12: Meaning, Murder, and Divine Madness

In Episode 12 of Sacred & Profane Love, “Meaning, Murder, and Divine Madness,” I speak with the eminent moral theologian, Fr Michael Sherwin, O.P., about Donna Tartt’s breakout bestseller, The Secret History.  We discuss how the novel is best situated within both the Southern Gothic and the Southern Catholic Gothic literary genres, and how Donna Tartt, like Flannery O’Connor, understands the task of the novelist as helping us come to see ourselves and our world as it truly is.

For good measure, we also discuss demonic possession, mystery cults, religious ecstasy, evil, Augustine, Nietzsche, Shakespeare, and Walker Percy.  I hope you enjoy our conversation.

 

Rev. Prof. Michael Sherwin OPwas one of our faculty for our 2016 Summer Session “Virtue & Happiness”, and is Professor of Fundamental Moral Theology at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. Fr. Sherwin is director of the Saint Thomas Aquinas Institute for Theology and Culture and of the Pinckaers Archives.  Author of articles on the psychology of love, virtue ethics and moral development, his monograph, By Knowledge and By Love: Charity and Knowledge in the Moral Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas (CUA Press, 2005) has been reissued in paperback.

 

Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina. Prior to joining the philosophy faculty at USC, she was a Collegiate Assistant Professor of Humanities at the University of Chicago, where she was a member of the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts and an affiliated faculty in the philosophy department.  She earned her PhD in philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, and her B.A. in Philosophy and Medieval Studies (with Classics minor) at Indiana University-Bloomington. Her research lies at the intersection of philosophy of action, ethics, and law, with a particular focus on the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition.

 Subscribe

Preview on iTunes

This podcast is a project of Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life, and is made possible through a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

Content copyright the University of South Carolina and the University of Chicago.

Music credits, “Help me Somebody,” by Brian Eno and David Byrne, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.5.

Gilead’s Visionary Realism

Aristotle opens up his Metaphysics with a simple but arresting observation:

“All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight.  For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not doing anything, we prefer seeing to everything else.”

For readers unfamiliar with his corpus, Aristotle’s Metaphysics is his great work on sophia or philosophical wisdom.  For Aristotle, metaphysics is the science of being qua being.  The wise person doesn’t simply see reality, her vision includes a grasp of its essential structure, its fundamental principles and causes.   The wise person knows where to direct her vision and attention; she knows how to occupy her mind well, so as to find joy in the truth. For Aristotle, only contemplation of God can perfect or complete our most fundamental tendencies as a rational person.

All of this raises an obvious question: In a treatise on universal knowledge of causes, why does Aristotle privilege the senses, and vision in particular?  Why does he emphasize the delight we take in seeing and beholding?

I want to turn to Marilyn Robinson’s stunningly beautiful Pulitzer prize winning novel, Gilead, to try to get a better grip on this Aristotelian idea .  I read Robinson’s novel as a testament to the joy of contemplation: of seeing the wonder of existence.

The main protagonist, the Reverend John Ames, is a man who models the life of contemplation, a man who understands well that certain moments, which he calls visions, are occasions for the kind of contemplation in which true happiness consists.

John Ames is a taciturn congregationalist minister in a small and inconsequential town in the plains of Iowa. The novel takes place sometime in the 1950’s, and at that point Reverend Ames is an old man (seventy six) dying from heart disease, who has a young son (about seven) and a young wife (perhaps she is in her late twenties).  Reverend Ames’s voice is the sole narrator of events, but there is no linear progression or even a story that he tells us.  We come to know him as the author of letters to his young son, letters that make up the entirety of the novel.  He is writing these letters in the hope that he can share what small measure of wisdom he has managed to attain in his long life, and in so doing, reveal himself to his son, who otherwise would barely know him at all.

The letters, while often about nothing of obvious importance, are achingly beautiful.  We learn from them that Reverand Ames is a writer; he tells us that his attic is full of boxes that contain every sermon he has ever preached to his congregation.  It is through writing that he has tried to understand the human person, God, creation, and of course, himself.  As he describes his prolific life work to his son (warning him that it is surely useless), he remarks:

“I write in a small hand,too, as you know by now.  Say three hundred pages make a volume.  Then I’ve written two hundred twenty five books, which puts me up there with Augustine and Calvin for quantity.  That’s amazing.  I wrote almost all of it in the deepest hope and conviction.  Sifting through my thoughts and choosing my words.  Trying to say what was true.  And I’ll tell you frankly, that was wonderful.”

From his letters we see that Ames is a serious man, one who is striving to live in accordance with what he believes is true.  We also learn that Ames is grateful for his wife and his son, for his vocation as a preacher, for his quiet life, and for existence itself. But most of all what one sees in John Ames is a man who knows how to pay attention, and who is able to see a glimpse of eternal truths in quiet, ordinary moments.  Of such a moment, he writes:

“There’s a shimmer on a child’s hair in the sunlight.  There are rainbow colors in it, tiny, soft beams of just the same colors you can see in the dew sometimes. They’re in the petals of flowers, and they’re on a child’s skin.  Your hair is straight and dark, and your skin is fair. I suppose you’re not prettier than most children.  You’re just a nice-looking boy, a bit slight, well scrubbed and well mannered. All that is fine, but it’s your existence I love you for, mainly.  Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined.” (53)

For Ames, writing to his son and to his congregation is a labor of love. Ames sees an essential link between writing and praying.  He confesses to his son that,

“writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers, as I was often enough.  You feel that you are with someone. I feel I am with you now, whatever than can mean, considering that you’re only a little fellow now and when you’re a man you might find these letters of no interest. Or they might never reach you, for any number of reasons.  Well, but how deeply I regret any sadness you have suffered and how grateful I am in anticipation of any good you have enjoyed.  That is to say, I pray for you.  And there’s an intimacy in it, that’s the truth.” (19)

The link that Ames draws between the intimacy of writing and praying is the link between our love and our attention.  We pay attention to what we love, and that is why we must love the right things in order to occupy our minds well.  It is because Ames loves his son that he is able to meditate on the shimmer in his hair in the sunlight and see the beauty of his existence in it.  It is because Ames desires to know and love God that he studies theology, preaches, and prays, and through this work his vision of ordinary, everyday life is transfigured into the work of grace.  For Ames, ordinary moments become occasions for deep contemplative joy.  The novel is replete with examples of these visionary moments, such as the following scene he encounters on the way to Church:

“There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me.  The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet.  On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something out of a myth.  I don’t know why I thought of that just now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables and doing the wash. I wish I had paid more attention to it. My list of regrets may seem unusual, but who can know that they are, really?  This is an interesting planet.  It deserves all the attention you can give it.” (28)

Ames wants his son to know how to pay attention, to cultivate a contemplative vision of the world around him.  He speaks of “the visionary aspect of any particular day” that might reveal its meaning over time, through contemplation of it.  Ames tells his son not to lose these moments, that he may understand his whole life and even existence itself in them, if he makes an effort to see what relationship our present reality has to an ultimate reality. And we should make an effort, as “it is waste and ingratitude not to honor such things as visions, whether you yourself happen to have seen them or not.” (97)

For Reverend Ames, his contemplative vision of the world is a foretaste of the beatified vision of God that he hopes awaits him at his death. But that does not detract from the wonder and joy of this life, which he clearly savors and wishes to impart to his son:

“I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us.  In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.” (57)

John Ames wants to teach his son to behold the world, to celebrate it, and to be grateful for it.  To return to it in memory and to try to find the meaning and beauty of our experience of it.  In short, he wants him to love and embrace the world, to see why it commands our attention.


Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and host of a philosophy podcast titled, Sacred and Profane Love.

 

 

Sacred and Profane Love Episode 11: The Contemplative Realism of Marilynne Robinson

Download Episode 11: The Contemplative Realism of Marilynne Robinson

 

In episode 11 of the Sacred and Profane Love Podcast, I speak with Scott Moringiello, assistant professor of Catholic Studies at DePaul University, in Chicago, Illinois, about Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Gilead.  Among other things, we discuss the connection between contemplation, love, grace, and the ability to pay attention.