Beauty, Transcendence, and the Inclusive Hierarchy of Creation 

Creation of Adam by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, Rome

We’re presenting a short series of abstracts of the work-in-progress our scholars presented and discussed at their June 2017 Working Group Meeting.

Thomas Joseph White, O.P., is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology, Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies.


Interpreters of Thomas Aquinas have long argued about whether he holds that beauty is a “transcendental,” that is to say a feature of reality coextensive with all that exists, like unity, goodness and truthfulness.

In the first part of this essay I will argue that Aquinas can be read to affirm in an implicit way that there is beauty in everything that exists. He also affirms clearly that this beauty derives from God, who Aquinas says is beautiful.

In the second part of the essay I will consider what it might mean from a Thomist point of view to speak of a transcendent divine beauty, and what is cannot mean philosophically speaking, given Aquinas’ other metaphysical commitments with regard to divine simplicity in particular. In the final part of the essay I hope to treat the question of how the beauty of the creation both manifests and conceals divine beauty, and to give special attention to the topic of hierarchy of perfections in creatures (as being, living and intellectual). My argument will be that Aquinas’ hierarchical understanding of reality is inclusive in character, so that an order of ethical and religious ethics derives from the natural order of beauty. The world’s natural beauty is meant to be respected and cared for in ways that acknowledge the intrinsic ontological integrity of “lesser” realities but also their inclusion within an order that sustains rational creatures, and their reference to the divine.

Law and Virtue in Jewish Tradition


We’re presenting a short series of abstracts of the work-in-progress our scholars presented and discussed at their June 2017 Working Group Meeting.

David Shatz is Ronald P. Stanton University Professor of Philosophy, Ethics, and Religious Thought, Yeshiva University,


Because law plays a central role in Judaism, one initially assumes that its code of conduct is best characterized as an act morality rather than agent morality. In addition, one expects questions about proper conduct to be answered by rabbinic authorities formalistically– by derivation of the law from existing precedent laws by use of analogies. At their core, these expectations about Jewish ethics are correct. My aim in this paper, however, is to explore to what extent Jewish ethics can be characterized as well as an agent morality– that is, how, in Jewish tradition, considerations of virtue do or do not impact on norms and how they do or do not override formalistic derivations of proper conduct.  The topic itself is not new, but I aim at a synthesis, analysis, and critique that is somewhat distinctive.

It must be said at the outset that Jewish tradition pays close attention to developing virtues. Indeed the literature on virtue is immense. Most famously, we have Maimonides’ work Eight Chapters, which is largely about virtue, and a section of his monumental legal code Mishneh Torah titled “Laws of Character Traits,” Medieval pietistic literature is a goldmine for explorations of character, and the Musar (translation: ethical) movement in the 19th century addressed in prodigious detail what traits are desirable and how to acquire them. Humility, faith, self-control,  fear of heaven, love, kindness, compassion, altruism—these and more are foci of the huge virtue ethics literature in Judaism. The question is how this high regard for virtue, this spotlight on agent-morality, interacts with the rule-centeredness act-morality of Jewish law (Hebrew: Halakhah).

In particular, I want to show how the following theses about the law-virtue relationship appear in Jewish texts, and to explore some questions and disagreements surrounding them.

1)    Some biblical laws are based on the desire to inculcate certain virtues and not on the belief that the actions proscribed or prescribed are in and of itself objectionable.

2)    At times doing the right thing may diminish one’s character. (I’ll call this the problem of moral attrition.)

3)    At times, doing the right thing reflects a character flaw—some right actions are such that a good person wouldn’t do them.

4)    A concern for virtue expands the parameters of obligation.

5)    Actions “bein adam la-havero” (=between two people, such as a giver of charity and a recipient) should not be motivated by submission to rules but rather should flow from inclinations (pace Kant).


Such claims appear in general philosophical literature, and the paper will utilize some of that material in examining the Jewish texts.

Self-Other Concept in Humble Love As Exemplified by Long-Term Members of L’Arche


We’re presenting a short series of abstracts of the work-in-progress our scholars presented and discussed at their June 2017 Working Group Meeting.

Robert C. Roberts is Professor of Ethics and Emotion Theory at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, and joint Chair with the Royal Institute of Philosophy. Michael Spezio is Associate Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience and head of the Laboratory for Inquiry into Valuation and Emotion (LIVE) at Scripps College in Claremont, CA.

After living for a significant period in l’Arche communities, people often experience a change of self-other concept. It is a character change in which, from conceiving self-other in a way that is typical for modern secular societies, members’ experience of self in relation to others is transformed under the reign of what we call humble love. Both before and after the transformation, the experience of self-other has the character of concern-based construal, but the terms of the two kinds of construal are mutually contrary. Following Jean Vanier, we call the ethos guiding the first self-other style of construal “the Normal” (he writes of “the tyranny of the Normal”). The leading concepts on which this ethos turns are success, competence, competition, advancement, achievement, power, superior-inferior, rival, reputation/recognition/ acclaim, and the like, as criteria for the evaluation of persons. Here the self is seen as in relation to the other/ others, but the relations are distancing, alienating, ones of rivalry, differential competence, superior achievement, competition for power, winner and loser, etc. The relations are not those within a community, in the strict sense, but rather within a social arena of agonistic differentiation. By contrast, the terms of self-other construals that are fostered by long-term living in l’Arche are characterized by commonality, mutuality, and reconciliation: brother/sister, friend, helper, colleague, forgiveness, love. Humble love combines two highly congruent and complementary virtues: humility and charity. The tyranny of the Normal erects “walls” that impede the mutuality construals of self-other that are characteristic of love. Humility, which dissipates or undermines the distancing, alienating self-other construals, brings down these walls, making way for the genuine communion of love with its characteristic self-other construals.

Practically Self-Conscious Life


WassertropfenWe’re presenting a short series of abstracts of the work-in-progress our scholars presented and discussed at their June 2017 Working Group Meeting.

Matthias Haase is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago.


Ethical Naturalism, as Philippa Foot conceives it, is the thesis that ethical goodness is a species of natural goodness. On this view, the central concept of meta-ethics is the concept of life. Natural goodness and defect is an aspect of the relation between a life-form and its exemplars. This relation is also exhibited by the sub-rational life of plants and animals. Ethical goodness concerns a certain dimension of the relation between a specifically rational life-form and its exemplars. Ethical Naturalism so conceived may thus be described as a two-step program for the treatment of our fundamental normative concepts of ethics. The first step introduces a general notion of normativity through the reflection of the concept of a life-form and its bearers. The second step is supposed to establish that the necessity expressed by ‘ought’ and ‘cannot,’ as they figure in our discourse about good action, is a sub-determination of the general notion of vital normativity.


Both steps have come under attack in the literature. It has been doubted that the concept of life introduces any genuine notion of normativity. And it has denied that ethical necessity belongs to such vital normativity. In both cases, the doubts may be presented as qualms about the logical forms to which the Ethical Naturalist appeals in the respective step of the proposed program. The notion of natural goodness is supposed to be elucidated by appeal to the special kind of generality exhibited by our descriptions of the life-cycle of a species: Natural Historical Judgments, as Michael Thompson calls them. Shifting such judgments into the self-conscious register of practical thought is supposed to provide the notion of a life-from that is essentially represented by its exemplars and thereby illuminate the idea of life in which the question ‘How should I live?’ has a place. In the paper I am concerned with this second step: the transition from life to practically self-conscious life.


My question is what form a developed Ethical Naturalism has to take for this transition to be articulated within its framework. I discuss a tension within Foot’s own account. And then turn to different ways in which the tension gets resolved in the theories of Rosalind Hursthouse and Michael Thompson. Each is confronted with further difficulties.

The origins of social categorization


We’re presenting a short series of abstracts of the work-in-progress our scholars presented and discussed at their June 2017 Working Group Meeting.

Katherine Kinzler is Associate Professor of Psychology and Associate Professor of Human Development at Cornell University,


Forming conceptually rich social categories helps people navigate the complex social world by allowing them to reason about others’ likely thoughts, beliefs, actions, and interactions as guided by group membership. Yet, social categorization often has nefarious consequences. We suggest that the foundation of the human ability to form useful social categories is in place in infancy: social categories guide infants’ inferences about peoples’ shared characteristics and social relationships. We also suggest that the ability to form abstract social categories may be separable from the eventual negative downstream consequences of social categorization, including prejudice, discrimination and stereotyping. Whereas a tendency to form inductively rich social categories appears early in ontogeny, prejudice based on each particular category dimension may not be inevitable.

Keywords: essentialism, infant, intergroup cognition, prejudice, social categorization, stereotype

Transcendence in Resilient American POWs: A Narrative Analysis

“Bringing up the Rear” Korean War Memorial in Washington, DC.  Photo by Charles Payne.
What is it about some American service members that enable them to bounce back from something like a POW experience, which may include daily conditions like filth, disease, starvation, torture, murder, and unscrupulous behavior among fellow prisoners and guards? Is it possible to transcend those experiences and make meaning of them in ways that allow one to heal and move on? How does one survive these stressors and manage to do things well, like get married, have a family, and live a productive life for decades after the traumatic experience? This study explores these questions.

Transcendence is an under-appreciated aspect of human experience with potentially significant positive contributions to the study of “spiritual fitness” and resilience in the military (Mullen, 2011), two factors attributed to successful navigation of the military life cycle. Transcendence, as a possible influencer of resilience, can be tracked in various forms, including narrative. I propose that resilient American service members who survived and bounced back from something like a POW experience, and wrote about it later, left traces of transcendence in their stories, which can be studied.

I also propose that transcendence is native to the human experience and can be conceptualized as an experiential meaning-making process, rather than an event or state of being. In my model of transcendence there are at least two possible outcomes. The first outcome, stabilization of one’s sense of self, enables the person to more firmly root him or herself in a response to the question, “What am I?” The second outcome, extraordinary connections within and beyond the self, in space-time, gives the person coordinates in moral space and allows the person to draw from those coordinates in future situations, particularly those that might be morally challenging. Eight memoirs of American POWs from two time periods were analyzed: World War II and the Vietnam War. The memoirs were selected based on public availability and known resilience of POW survivors (no known attempt to commit suicide within five years of discharge).

Anti-transcendence, an “anti-process” and a contrary to transcendence, is a necessary conceptualization because both transcendent and anti-transcendent events are found in the human condition. Although failure to make meaning of personally relevant transcendent events does not necessarily carry negative consequences, failure to make meaning of personally relevant anti-transcendent events does carry a downside risk of destabilizing one’s sense of self and fracturing or disintegrating connections within and beyond oneself. Anti-transcendence as a possible precursor to destabilization of one’s sense of self, fracturing or severing of deep ties within and beyond the self, and as a possible catalyst to something like anomy (a form of meaninglessness), has received virtually no attention in the literature, yet has the potential to contribute to a larger discussion around related issues like moral injury, depression associated with PTSD, identity crises, and suicidal ideation. The figure below is a partial representation of my model of transcendence and anti-transcendence.

The results of this study challenge existing notions of transcendence as an event or state of being, and offer evidence of an alternative, trackable, conceptualization of transcendence. The study also offers a method to track transcendence in written narrative form, and to detect instances of both transcendence and anti-transcendence, as well as their outcomes. The resilient American service members in this study all appear to have processed transcendent and anti-transcendent events in ways that yielded patterned results, whether in regard to one’s sense of self or to extraordinary connections within and beyond the self. Although resilience may not necessarily equal immunity to such symptoms as post-traumatic stress, transcendence and resilience together may be intertwined in ways that contribute to more robust coping or adaptive behavior, such as one of the memoirist’s decisions to tell his story and seek professional help for his PTSD symptoms after recognizing their persistence. The study of transcendence and its connection to resilience may also contribute to a broader concept of well-being, like the notions of human thriving or human flourishing.

A final word about transcendence: although this study is limited to the examination of transcendence at a personal level, there is also support for the notion that it can occur at a collective level. Peter Berger (1967) made three observations that are relevant to the idea that transcendence is a native dimension of the human experience, individually and collectively. First, world-building is a biological imperative for the human person: “The world-building of man is not a biologically extraneous phenomenon, but the direct consequence of man’s biological constitution.” Second, world-building by the individual man is never separated from society: “Man’s world-building activity is always a collective enterprise. Man’s internal appropriation of the world must also take place in a collectivity.” Third, in the process of world-building, “man, by his own activity, specializes his drives and provides stability for himself.” I point this out here to show that there may be much more to transcendence when compared between the individual and collective levels; the potentially therapeutic outcomes of stabilizing one’s sense of self and making extraordinary connections within and beyond the self may exhibit phenomenal effects if the process is adopted organizationally, with due care to maintain the integrity of a person’s religious, cultural, and ethnic senses of identity. If, in future studies, transcendence can be identified more strongly as a positive predictor of resilience, it may play a role as a therapeutic mechanism, individually and perhaps even on a more communal level.

[1] M.G. Mullen (Admiral, US Navy), “Chairman’s Total Force Fitness Framework,” CJCSI 3405.01, J-7 (1 September 2011).
[2] Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Anchor Books, 1967).

Cabrini Pak, PhD, recently earned her doctorate in Religion and Culture at The Catholic University of America and is on a two-year global assignment with the Oblates of the Virgin Mary. She was a participant in our 2017 Summer Seminar, Virtue, Happiness, and Self-Transcendence. This is an excerpt of her dissertation, which studies transcendence in resilient American service members in two major war periods. Her dissertation will be publicly available later this year. “Transcendence in Resilient American POWs: A Narrative Analysis”: A Dissertation by Cabrini Pak, Ph.D. Director: Dr. William Barbieri, Ph.D. 

Frankl’s Self-Transcendence Model and Virtue Ethics – Part 1 of 2


Paul T.P. Wong is Professor Emeritus, Trent University, and a scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.  Timothy Reilly is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Developing Virtues in the Practice of Science Project at the University of Notre Dame, and was a participant in our 2017 Summer Seminar, Virtue, Happiness, and Self-Transcendence.

This post is part 1 of a 2-part series.


The main thesis in this presentation is that Viktor Frankl’s self-transcendence (ST) model provides a useful ethical framework for living and behaving well. We also argue that his model is consistent with the Aristotelian and Thomistic moral theory of virtue ethics in important ways (Hursthouse & Pettigrove, 2016).

Virtue is an important topic for psychology, philosophy, and business management because it is concerned with moral excellence and ethical behaviours that are crucial for the well-being and flourishing of individuals and communities. The real challenge for any moral theory is whether it has the practical value of helping people live as ethical, decent human beings in daily concrete situations.

Frankl’s ST model is very practical, because it was developed and tested in wrestling with the ethical challenges of how to be a decent human being under two extremely difficult conditions in real life. The first challenge had to do with suffering—how to live with a sense of human dignity and significance even when one was facing unimaginable degradation, atrocities, and a cruel death. The second challenge had to do with power—how to prevent anyone in a position of power from its corrupting influence and becoming a monster like Hitler.

Summary of Previous Presentations

At the first Virtue Scholars meeting, I presented the meaning hypothesis of living a good life (Wong, 2015a), based on my interpretation of Frankl’s concept of meaning-seeking (Wong, 2014) and his ST model (Wong, 2016a). More specifically, the meaning hypothesis posits that our primary motivational need of seeking meaning (i.e., the will to meaning) and the meaning-mindset of finding meaning (i.e., meaning of life) constitute the motivational and cognitive factors of ST. My focus was on the importance of the perspective of the meaning-mindset.

My second presentation elaborated on the meaning hypothesis by explaining how the striving towards some goals of ST is a promising pathway to live a good life of virtue, happiness, and meaning (Wong, 2016b). My focus was on the motivational aspect of seeking meaning. After reviewing various conceptions and models of ST, I concluded that Frankl’s two-factor model of ST (cognitive and motivational factors) represents the most comprehensive ST model for research and intervention.

At the December 2017 Virtue Scholars working group meeting, I sketched the various components of Frankl’s ST model and their inter-relationships as shown in Figure 1. I also introduced the four defining characteristics of ST as measured by the Self-Transcendence Measure (STM) (Wong, 2016c). I proposed that these four dimensions could differentiate the virtuous type of genuine ST from the evil type of pseudo-ST because of their inherent moral orientation (Wong, 2017).

In this present paper, the focus is on the basic tenets of Frankl’s ST model and their moral implications for living a virtuous life. We attempt to integrate Frankl’s work with moral philosophy.


Figure 1. Frankl’s two-factor theory and characteristics of self-transcendence.

Basic Assumptions of Frankl’s Self-Transcendence Model and Virtue Ethics

Frankl’s answer to the two ethical challenges identified in the introduction is fourfold: (1) the defiant power of the human spirit; (2) the capacity for freedom and responsibility; (3) the primary motivation for ST; and (4) the power of the meaning-mindset.

Defiant Power of the Human Spirit

Viktor Frankl (1985) described the defiant power of the human spirit as the freedom to take a courageous stance towards fate and the human capacity to transform a tragedy into a triumph. He defined courage in terms of the noetic or spiritual dimension; thus, moral courage had a spiritual origin.

Recently, Wong (2015b) interpreted the defiant power as the moral courage to maintain one’s cherished values and human dignity in the face of suffering and death; this courage is the key to true grit in surviving constant and unimaginable assaults on one’s physical and psychological integrity.

Without such moral fortitude in the face of danger, we would not be able to have the character strength to preserve and realize the moral values that make us decent human beings. This is essentially an existential courage that enables us to take a defiant stand against a harsh fate and do what is morally right despite personal dangers.

Frankl’s view of courage is consistent with both the classic and Catholic conceptions of courage as a virtue. Plato (1894/2000) considers courage as one of the four cardinal values. Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics, 3.6-9) defines courage as have the right “amount” of fear (“the mean”); thus, a courageous person still fears things that all human beings are afraid of, yet has the courage to face these fears as one should for some good and worthy goal, such as facing death in a battle to protect one’s country. Thomas Aquinas considers fortitude or courage primarily in terms of endurance with firmness. He says, “The principal act of courage is to endure and withstand dangers doggedly rather than to attack” (Summa Theologica, IIb, 123.8). Courage is expressed when an individual is pursuing a difficult or dangerous goal that is sufficiently valuable to be worth the difficulty or danger.

In sum, having moral courage is a prerequisite for doing the right thing or making the right choice. It is easy to do what is expedient, but it takes courage to do what is right. It is an easy way out to compromise or surrender in the face of great danger, but it takes great courage to stand up for one’s core values and beliefs. Thus, moral fortitude is just the starting point; there are additional conditions one must fulfill in order to be a fully functioning decent human being.

Capacity for Freedom and Responsibility

“Freedom of will” figures prominently in Frankl’s ST model. His model hinges on the responsible use of freedom in all situations. In Man’s Search for Meaning (Frankl, 1985), he declares:

Man is not fully conditioned and determined but rather he determines himself whether he give in to conditions or stands up to them. In other words, man is self-determining. Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment. By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant. (p. 154)

Every person has the freedom and responsibility to choose their own pathway and life goals. Their choices determine their character, well-being, and destiny, even when we factor in fate or luck. Every situation presents us with the choice between good and evil, between acting on the bright side or the dark side of our nature; we can choose between spiritual joy and carnal pleasures, between practicing kindness and abusing our powers.

Shantall’s (2004) research on Holocaust survivors supports Frankl’s thesis on moral responsibility. Here are some important lessons from Holocaust survivors:

Their active efforts to maintain moral values in the face of the onslaught against them, made their lives take on greater spiritual content and meaning. Living with a profound value-directedness and moral responsibility, they experienced a sense of true destiny (something or someone to live or survive for) with peak moments of triumph and even joy. (p. 3)

The human capacity for freedom of will allows us to deliberate and choose between good and evil, between desires and values. Our awareness of the moral implications of our choices makes us morally responsible for our decisions and actions. Aquinas attributes this freedom to our rational or volitional abilities. Even though our nature may predispose us to certain ends, we have the freedom to choose between the ends, as well as the pathway to achieve a certain end. Aquinas conception of freedom, however, does not entail that all choices are equal, but rather a teleological notion of freedom- the more free one is the more able one is to pursue the good (Titus & Moncher, 2009). Another way to phrase this is that the virtuous individual is free to be just, and so to fulfill their obligations and responsibilities, choosing the proper actions for the proper reasons (Titus, 2016).

Frankl’s ST model represents an agent-centered moral theory which emphasizes the human being as a moral agent (Harris, 1999; Slote, 2001). For Slote (2001), a virtuous life depends on both a particular agent’s inner dispositions and actual motives. Therefore, the virtuous kind of ST needs to stem from a good inner disposition and a good motive.

Frankl’s model recognizes human beings as both moral and instrumental agents. It is consistent with the psychological literature of self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000) and self-efficacy theory (Bandura, 1977), which are predicated on the human capacity for freedom and responsibility. In moral psychology, research on moral identity (Colby & Damon, 1992) and moral education (Bebeau, Rest, & Narvaez, 1999) emphasizes that individuals whose moral goals and values are central to their self-concept feel responsible for acting in consistently moral ways.

Tomorrow in Part II, we will discuss the Motivation of Searching for Self-Transcendence.