This two-day workshop aims to close the gap between empirical and philosophical approaches to questions of happiness, virtue, and the meaning of life, in the interest of encouraging the development of an empirically informed philosophy and a science with philosophical awareness. Organizers: Erik Angner and Mats Ingelström.
Keynotes by Jennifer A. Frey (University of South Carolina) and Candace Vogler (University of Chicago).
Presentations by Anna Alexandrova (Cambridge University), Michael Bishop (Florida State
University), Dale Dorsey (University of Kansas), Kirsten Egerstrom (Southern Methodist University), Kaisa Kärki (University of Jyväskylä), Antti Kauppinen (University of Tampere), Jennifer Lockhart (Auburn University), Jason Raibley (California State University), Raffaele Rodogno (Aarhus University), Joshua Lewis Thomas (University of Sheffield), Willem van der Deijl (Erasmus University ) and Sam Wren-Lewis (Leeds University).
FREE ADMISSION Time and place: Friday and Saturday 5–6 of May, in the William-Olsson lecture hall (Geovetenskapens hus).
Everyone strives for happiness in life, but you don’t have to be especially perceptive to notice that not everyone reaches the goal. How much of this failure is one’s own fault? After all, we humans are vulnerable creatures, all more or less at the mercy of fortune. Talent, beauty, intelligence, health, social privilege, a loving and secure family—these gifts are distributed unequally among us, and we may lose them against our wills. This raises the question: How much of human happiness is a matter of good fortune or gift, and how much of it is under a person’s voluntary control? Even the word happiness carries with it connotations of what is bestowed rather than earned (etymologically, it’s root is ‘hap,’ which means good luck; in fact, in most European languages, the word for happiness originally had the same reference to good fortune rather what has been merited through wise choices).
Contemporary virtue ethicists often argue that the purpose of life is happiness, and that if you hope to reach it, you ought to cultivate a good character. But then what should we say to the man who cultivates virtue but to whom happiness is ultimately denied? Do we simply acknowledge that there is an element of luck in anything a human pursues, including the highest good? Must we admit that some among us are tragic figures, fated to a sorry end despite all hard fought efforts to change it?
Furthermore, if real tragedy is possible, then perhaps it is wrong to insist that happiness is the goal of life; perhaps instead, as Immanuel Kant argues, we should simply strive to be moral, without thinking this is in the service of anything else. In his influential Metaphysics of Morals, Kant claims the following about a good will:
“Even if by some particular disfavor of fate, or by the scanty endowment of a stepmotherly nature, this will should entirely lack the capacity to carry through its purpose; if despite its greatest striving it should still accomplish nothing, and only the good will were to remain…then, like a jewel, it would still shine by itself, as something that has full worth in itself”.”
The role of fortune in human life and its impact on happiness is the central theme of one of the most influential literary texts of the Middle Ages, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. For Boethius (475-526), the questions surrounding fate and fortune were not merely academic but existential; a philosopher-statesman in the mold that Plato first outlined, Boethius finds himself unjustly accused of treason and sentenced to an untimely and cruel death. While imprisoned, without his library, his health, his friends or family, Boethius composes a deeply moving meditation on wisdom and happiness.
The book opens with a lament upon his own pitiful condition, which will set up a sharp contrast between Boethius and Lady Philosophy. Boethius describes himself in a state of physical decline and despair; with “untimely white upon his head,” he describes himself as a “worn out bone bag hung with flesh.” He yearns for the release of death, but complains that death’s ears are “deaf to hopeless cries” and death’s hands refuse “to close poor weeping eyes.” Reflecting upon his earlier life, he writes:
Foolish the friends who called me happy then
For falling shows a man stood insecure.
While he is busy feeling sorry for himself, Lady Philosophy—wisdom personified—appears to him. She is noted for her keen, burning eyes, a sign that she is able to see reality clearly. She, unlike Boethius, is healthy, calm and unperturbed, of regal mien and dress. She carries books in one arm (a symbol of her knowledge) and a scepter in the other (a symbol of her power to order and rule life in accordance with it). Philosophy is described as a physician who has come to diagnose and heal Boethius; she tells him he suffers from a “sickness of mind”—an amnesia, since he has forgotten what he once knew. This amnesia has been brought about not by his change of fortune, but his inordinate focus on his current plight, which stirs up in him vehement passions of grief, sadness, and anger. Philosophy is there to help him recover knowledge of himself and his true nature. This knowledge, she tells him, will be his ultimate consolation and cure.
Philosophy uses rational argument to heal her patient. She begins by arguing that the loss of good fortune is no genuine loss. Fortune, she complains, flatters people and entices them with a false sense of happiness. The happiness that good fortune grants is unreliable and insecure, as change is the very essence of fortune. Boethius depicts Fortune as a lady gleefully and carelessly spinning a wheel that determines man’s fate. When it is her turn to speak to Boethius, she warns him:
It is the game I never cease to play as I turn my wheel in its ever changing circle, filled with joy as I bring the top to the bottom and the bottom to the top. Yes, rise up on my wheel if you like, but don’t count it an injury when by the same token you begin to fall, as the rules of the game will require.
Fortune controls worldly goods: wealth, honors, power, fame, and pleasures. Philosophy points out that none of these goods is ever wholly stable or secure. Thus, if a man sets his heart upon any of them he is bound to wind up anxious in his ongoing struggle to maintain them.
Real happiness, by contrast, cannot be lost to a man who possesses it. Such a good is “self-sufficient” in that it lacks nothing and leaves nothing more to be desired once possessed. A man who is truly happy is perfectly sated—he does not thirst or want for more. Eventually, Philosophy comes to argue that the only candidate for such a complete and perfect good is God, and that the only way to participate in this good is to cultivate virtue. This is meant to console Boethius, since the cultivation of virtue is the one thing she insists is under his complete control.
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.
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.
We’re presenting a short series of abstracts of the work-in-progress our scholars will present and discuss at their June 2017 Working Group Meeting.
Reinhard Hütter is Professor of Christian Theology at The Catholic University of America and Duke University.
In my last paper I argued that any robust philosophical, let one, theological account of happiness and self-transcendence presupposes an account of finality or teleology. I advanced the case that without an antecedent understanding of the specific nature and the distinct finality of the human person, it is rather futile to gain clarity about the nature of authentic happiness, of genuine self-transcendence and last, but not least, about the question of a perfect continuous state of ek-static bliss, surpassingly fulfilled self-transcendence, or, what the Catholic tradition calls, the beatific vision. Hidden disagreements on this fundamental metaphysical level (human beings are not persons but at best super-primates; they do not have rational souls, but the mind is an epiphenomenon of neurological processes; the universe is bereft of finality, because there does not exist a transcendent First Cause and Final End, usually called God) give rise to notions of happiness that are not only philosophically underdetermined but mutually exclusive, if not simply equivocal. I held that one important step toward a clarification of these matters is a straightforward description of a particular, comprehensive account of finality, self-transcendence, and happiness, an account that lays bare its philosophical and theological first principles.
In this paper I take another step by addressing one of the most daunting contemporary obstacles to a rigorous and comprehensive inquiry into the nature of happiness, self-transcendence, and the meaning of life—the late modern research university and its self-imposed limitation to the empirically falsifiable supported by a tacit but tenacious commitment to what can be variously described as the immanent frame, secularism, instrumentalism, and the privileging of the quantifiable and computable as the proper object of what is a “true” science. It is unavoidable that inquiries that transcend this self-imposed limitation of reason, because of their allegedly non-scientific character, are banned from the public space of university discourse and relegated to the realm of the subjective, to the private space of individual curiosity. Or such inquiries must be transformed in such a way that they fit the immanentist and empiricist framework. Certain disciplines (the sad and interiorly disarrayed remnant of the “humanities”) that engage in such inquiries may exist on the margins of the university as historically descriptive, textually interpretive, and conceptually analytic enterprises that may contribute, next to rigorous disciplines like mathematics and cybernetics, to a soft but still in some ways not completely useless propaedeutic to the real work of science. This reality is challenged by an understanding of the university as an institution that essentially engages the whole breadth of reason and does not deny its grandeur in any shape or form. It is in such a university, I suggest, where inquiries into happiness, virtue, and the meaning of life stand at the very center of what a university is about. It is John Henry Newman who articulates the idea of such a university with a still unsurpassed clarity and force.
Our scholar and theologian Fr. Thomas Joseph White talks about the classical idea of philosophy as wisdom, and the notion of a hierarchy of being in the universe in accord with the modern sciences. The talk also contains a consideration of objections that might arise from Kant, Heidegger or Neo-Darwinianism.
This lecture is part 3 of a 3-part series on an introduction to metaphysics and shared by one of our partners, the Thomistic Institute.
Click the link below to hear our scholar and philosopher Josef Stern discuss Jewish medieval philosophy, his approach as a skeptical reader of Maimonides, multiple levels of meaning into the Akedah or “binding of Isaac”, and how he anticipates working with scholars in our project across the fields of philosophy, theology, and psychology will impact his approach to thinking about ideas of happiness, meaning, and perplexity.
Josef Stern is the William H. Colvin Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Chicago and from 2009-14 he was Inaugural Director of the Chicago Center for Jewish Studies. His book The Matter and Form of Maimonides’ Guide (Harvard UP, 20013) won the 2014 Book Prize for the best book on the history of philosophy published in 2013, awarded by the Board of Directors of the Journal of the History of Philosophy, and will be published soon in a slightly revised version in Hebrew as Homer ve-Tzurah Ba-Moreh Nevukhim Le-RaMBaM by Kibbutz Ha-Me’uhad Publishers, Israel. Stern is also completing another book, Quotations and Pictures, to be published in 2018 by MIT Press.
Our Co-Principal Investigator Candace Vogler spoke with journalist Richard McComb when she was a keynote speaker at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues’ annual conference at Oriel College, Oxford. For the full article, click here.
At a time of socio-political upheaval and uncertainty, both in Europe and the United States, it is perhaps not surprising that public interest has focused on the project’s pursuit of happiness.
Prof Vogler is wonderfully candid in her responses when asked about the secret of happiness.
“Stage one is, ‘Get over yourself!’” she says. “Don’t worry so much about self-actualisation, self-expression, self-development, self-this, self-that.
“See if you can break the fascination of your own ego for a little bit. See if you can turn your attention to something that is genuinely self-transcendent, that connects you to a world bigger than your intimate circle – and engage there. That is likely to be where you will develop in virtue and character. Your character develops when you get opportunities that are expressive and productive of goods bigger than you are.
“Do you engage at the soup kitchen a couple of times a week because you know you are supposed to be charitable? No, you volunteer at the soup kitchen by opening yourself up to the possibility that you could be drawn out of yourself rather than affirmed in a sense of your own goodness. The self-transcendence provides the context in which virtue is at home.”
Prof Vogler has little time for self-righteous navel-gazing, adding: “You don’t have a beautiful soul if it’s useless to everyone around you. You don’t have a beautiful soul if you can’t be bothered to think about how to engage more effectively in the world that you find yourself in, not just for the sake of your own success but for the sake of contributing to what is good in that world and helping it struggle against what is bad.”