Empathy and Self-Transcendence

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“Empathy” | Photo by Sarah Barker.

Note: This is part 1 of a 3-part series “Perspective-Taking, Empathy, and Self-Transcendence” based on a talk at the University of California, San Diego by Candace Vogler in June 2018 for WISDOM, COMPASSION, AND LONGEVITY.

 

Introduction

Some colleagues and I are in the process of bringing a grant project to a close.  The project has given all of us a chance to think together about the relationship between working to be a good person, leading a meaningful life, and being happy.  These three need not coincide.  I could be working hard to deliver medical supplies, food, and drinking water to refugees in desperate circumstances.  I am helping set up a clinic in their camp, say.  New people keep arriving, fleeing the genocidal violence across the border.

 

Chances are that I have a strong sense of purpose.  There is meaning in the life I’m leading.  Chances are that I am a reasonably good person.  On some understandings of the term ‘happiness’—the sort associated with having a happy birthday, say, or a happy holiday—I am probably not particularly happy. But there is a kind of happiness I might have even in the camp.  I might get a profound sense of satisfaction from my work.  I might be exultant if we are able to save the lives of people who are half-dead when they arrive.  And I might be cheerful.  If profound satisfaction and the ability to maintain some balance and some capacity for joy amid immense struggle is what we mean by ‘happiness,’ then I am happy.

 

Our grant project was not explicitly directed to the situation of humanitarian aid workers and those who need the help they bring. We were mostly thinking about ordinary people who understand themselves as belonging to a middle class in places like North America.  We wanted to understand what might be involved in finding meaning and real satisfaction in leading ordinary lives in the kinds of extraordinarily fortunate circumstances middle class people around these parts enjoy.  We argued—in various ways, across various academic disciplines—that the key to bringing together efforts to be a good person, deep satisfaction, and a strong sense of meaning in one’s ordinary life was to be oriented to some good larger than one’s own success and the welfare of members of one’s circle.  Being entirely oriented to my own success, my own pleasures, my own comfort, my own prospects, is not a recipe for leading a good life.  It does not become a recipe for leading a good life even if I extend the sphere of my primary concern to cover the pleasures, comfort, security and prospects of my friends and family.  Finding meaning in my life, finding my life profoundly satisfying, putting my efforts to be a good person in their proper place—these things require being alive to participating in a good that goes beyond me and mine.

 

There are many ways that this can happen.  I can understand my life in the context of a multigenerational family that began long before I was born and will, with any luck, continue long after I die.  I inherited the benefits of the struggles of my ancestors.  I want to carry the good forward for my descendants—people I will never meet, whose names I will not know, but whose lives grow out of the life I lead.  Or perhaps it is like this—I work toward environmental sustainability, or I am devoted to social justice, or my religious faith animates my sense of my world and our place in it.  Lots of roads are made of good larger than the worldly gains of me and mine.  Following any of those roads can amount to living a life where ordinary things are meaningful, where life is deeply satisfying even when it is not much fun, and where the ordinary ethical struggles I face are worth the courage and effort it takes to begin to remedy my own failings.

 

One way of putting the central insight that animated our grant project, then, is this—to lead a life that is good in three senses—successful, satisfying, and ethically sound—we must break the spell of selfishness.  Breaking the spell of selfishness is not easy.  I will focus on one of the ways that we can loosen the hold of what Immanuel Kant called ‘the dear self’ today.  I will talk about the variety of compassion at issue in empathy.

 

Tomorrow, June 6: Empathy and Shifting Perspectives


Candace Vogler is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago and a Principal Investigator on ‘Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life’, a project funded by the John Templeton Foundation. She is also the Chair in Virtue Theory, a joint appointment with the Jubilee Centre and the Royal Institute of Philosophy. 

Aquinas on Sin, Suffering, and Evil

We are pleased to share an audio recording of a lecture titled, “Aquinas on Sin, Suffering, and Evil,” delivered by our co-PI, Jennifer Frey, at the University of Maryland College Park, under the auspices of our institutional partner, The Thomistic Institute.  

In this lecture, Professor Frey outlines what Thomas Aquinas means by evil and sin, with particular focuses on the sources of sin, as well as addresses the question that lies at the heart of the problem of evil: How can a loving and omnipotent God permit sin, evil, and suffering in the world?

Elizabeth Anscombe on Living the Truth

We are pleased to share this video of a recent lectured delivered by our co-PI, Jennifer Frey, here at the University of Chicago under the auspices of our institutional partner, The Lumen Christi Institute.

 

Here is the abstract associated with Professor Frey’s talk:

Elizabeth Anscombe was one of the most formidable and influential analytic philosophers of the twentieth century.  One of the last lectures she delivered was titled, “Doing the Truth.”  In it, she sets out to identify and clarify a specifically practical mode of truth as the proper goal of a specifically practical mode of reasoning and knowledge.  This talk explores how Anscombe understands practical truth by relating it to her influential theory of action; its ultimate suggestion is that “living the truth” just is living a good human life–i.e., knowingly performing actions in accordance with true judgments of right practical reasoning. The person who achieves such truth is virtuous and lives well.

Podcast: “Boasts of Love in Troilus and Criseyde” | Sacred and Profane Love, Episode 7

Download Episode 7:

Boasts of Love in Troilus and Criseyde

 

In Episode 7 of Sacred & Profane Love, Professor Jennifer A. Frey speaks with her colleague in the English department at the University of South Carolina, Professor Holly A. Crocker, about the boasts and pledges of love in Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous Middle English poem, Troilus and Criseyde.  This wide ranging conversation considers how the courtly love tradition, the Christian tradition, and the classical pagan traditions are put to use in Chaucer’s poem to help us understand the all too human failure to live up to our pledges of love, and to what extent this failure depends on good fortune rather than philosophical and practical wisdom.

Additional Resources:
Teach yourself Middle English for free here!
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 and ethics, with a particular focus on the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition.
Holly A. Crocker is Professor of English at the University of South Carolina. Her current projects include an essay collection (co-edited with Glenn Burger), *Medieval Affect, Feeling, and Emotion,* which is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press, and a monograph, *The Matter of Virtue: Women’s Ethical Action from Chaucer to Shakespeare,* which is under contract with the University of Pennsylvania Press. She’s beginning a new monograph, *Feminism Without Gender in Late Medieval Literature,* which argues for a feminist model of subjectivity in Chaucer, Langland, Kempe, Hoccleve, and the *Pearl*-poet.

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Sacred and Profane Love is a podcast in which philosophers, theologians, and literary critics discuss some of their favorite works of literature, and how these works have shaped their own ideas about love, happiness, and meaning in human life. Host Jennifer A. Frey is A Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and co-Principal Investigator at Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.

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.

Podcast: Elena Ferrante on Friendship and the Intellectual Life | Sacred & Profane Love

Download Episode 6: Elena Ferrante on Friendship and the Intellectual Life

 In Episode 6 of Sacred & Profane Love, Professor Jennifer A. Frey (University of South Carolina) has a conversation with Zena Hitz (St. John’s College) about friendship, the intellectual life, and the virtue of seriousness in Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels.  This episode explores how the cultivation of an inner life through contemplation–i.e., seeing, understanding, and savoring things as they are–allows us to enter into a deep and meaningful communion with other human persons.

Ferrante novels: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/26828169-the-neapolitan-novels

Zena Hitz is a Tutor at St. John’s College where she teaches across the liberal arts.  She writes in defense of intellectual activity for its own sake, as against its use for economic or political goals.  She is currently writing a book on intellectual life and why it matters for Princeton University Press, based on essays that have appeared in First ThingsModern Age, and The Washington Post.  Her scholarly work has focused on the political thought of Plato and Aristotle, especially the question of how law cultivates or fails to cultivate human excellence.  She received an MPhil in Classics from Cambridge and studied Social Thought and Philosophy at the University of Chicago before finishing her PhD in Philosophy at Princeton.

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 and ethics, with a particular focus on the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition.

 Subscribe

Preview on iTunes

Sacred and Profane Love is a podcast in which philosophers, theologians, and literary critics discuss some of their favorite works of literature, and how these works have shaped their own ideas about love, happiness, and meaning in human life. Host Jennifer A. Frey is A Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and co-Principal Investigator at Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.

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.

Podcast: “Eros and Ecstasy” | Sacred & Profane Love

Download Episode 5: Talbot Brewer on Eros and Ecstasy

In Episode 5 of Sacred & Profane Love, Professor Jennifer A. Frey (University of South Carolina) discusses the erotic impulse and experience with Professor of philosophy Talbot Brewer (University of Virginia).  This discussion explores how eros draws us out of ourselves into a kind of ecstatic union with a beloved–a union whose power over us comes from its potential to give birth to something greater and more beautiful than one’s present self.
Detail from a portrait of a young woman – from a fresco from Pompeii – thought to be Sappho. Via Museo Archeologico Nazionale (Naples) via Wikimedia Commons.
Talbot Brewer is Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of Virginia. He specializes in ethics and political philosophy, with particular attention to moral psychology and Aristotelian ethics.  He is the author of numerous essays, including “Reflections on the Cultural Commons” (in Nestor García, ed, Being Human in a Consumerist Society, 2014), “Two Pictures of Practical Thinking” (in Jost and Wuerth, eds, Perfecting Virtue, 2011), “Is Welfare an Independent Good?” (Social Philosophy & Policy 26, 2009), “Three Dogmas of Desire” (in Chappell, ed, Values and Virtues, 2007), “Virtues We Can Share: A Reading of Aristotle’s Ethics” (Ethics 115, 2005), “Two Kinds of Commitments (And Two Kinds of Social Groups)” (Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 66, 2003), and “Maxims and Virtues” (The Philosophical Review 3, 2002). He has been a visiting professor in the Harvard University Philosophy Department and has authored two books, the most recent of which is The Retrieval of Ethics (Oxford University Press, 2009).  He is currently at work on two books, one on Aristotelian action theory and its intersection with ethics, and another on a phenomenon that he calls “tragedies of the cultural commons”.
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 and ethics, with a particular focus on the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition.

 Subscribe

Preview on iTunes

Sacred and Profane Love is a podcast in which philosophers, theologians, and literary critics discuss some of their favorite works of literature, and how these works have shaped their own ideas about love, happiness, and meaning in human life. Host Jennifer A. Frey is A Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and co-Principal Investigator at Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.

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.