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.

Candace Vogler to Give Annual Aquinas Lecture & Colloquium Talk at Blackfriars

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Our Principal Investigator Candace Vogler is presenting at Blackfriars, St Giles, Oxford in early March.

Annual Aquinas Lecture

Thursday 2nd March 2017

“The Intellectual Animal” will be the 2017 Aquinas Lecture, delivered on Thursday 2 March at 5pm in the Aula at Blackfriars, by Prof Candace Vogler, David B and Clara E Stern Professor of Philosophy, University of Chicago, and Principal Investigator on “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life”.

If you wish to attend, please inform: richard.conrad@bfriars.ox.ac.uk

Link

220px-Blackfriars_Oxford.jpegAquinas and Newman on Conscience

Saturday 4th March 2017

Freedom of Conscience is a right widely promoted, and widely withheld. If, as Elizabeth Anscombe remarked, “a man’s conscience may tell him to do the vilest things,” how absolute are its rights? Do we need to clarify what conscience is, and how it follows from our creation in God’s image, if we are to state its duties, privileges and limitations, and cherish it without idolizing it?

Candace Vogler will give the talk “Aquinas on Synderesis”

Link

 

Audio: Fr. Thomas Joseph White, OP | Metaphysics: Transcendentals and the Existence of God

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Stained Glass window in the Church of Braine-le-Chateau, Wallonia, Belgium, depicting Saint Thomas Aquinas.
Our scholar and theologian Fr. Thomas Joseph White talks about about Aquinas’ views of the transcendentals: being, unity, truth, goodness, beauty, and how they relate to more ultimate questions about the existence of God, in this Soundcloud shared by one of our partners, the Thomistic Institute.
This lecture is part 2 of a 3-part series on an introduction to metaphysics.

Candace Vogler on Aquinas and Practical Wisdom | Our Scholars at Oxford for Jubilee Centre Conference on Character, Wisdom, and Virtue, January 5-7, 2017

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Inside New College, Oxford, and its Gardens. Photo by JR P (Flickr).

In early January, four of our scholars—Howard Nusbaum, David Carr, John Haldane, and Robert C. Roberts—and our 2 Principal Investigators—Jennifer Frey and Candace Vogler—all participated in a conference on Character, Wisdom, and Virtue held January 5, 6, and 7, 2017 at Oriel College, Oxford, UK, sponsored by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham, UK. We are pleased to feature their abstracts and papers here on the Virtue Blog, with many thanks to the Jubilee Centre. http://jubileecentre.ac.uk

vhml-candace-vogler-photo-by-marc-monaghan20150918_0001_1Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago. She has authored two books, John Stuart Mill’s Deliberative Landscape: An essay in moral psychology (Routledge, 2001) and Reasonably Vicious (Harvard University Press, 2002), as well as essays in ethics, social and political philosophy, philosophy and literature, cinema, psychoanalysis, and gender and sexuality studies. Her research interests are in practical philosophy (particularly the strand of work in moral philosophy indebted to Elizabeth Anscombe), practical reason, Kant’s ethics, Marx, and neo-Aristotelian naturalism.

Below is her abstract, introduction, and link to her keynote paper, “Aquinas on Practical Wisdom.”

ABSTRACT: “Aquinas on Practical Wisdom”

Various aspects of Aristotelian work on virtue seem to move around each other in circles—correct practical knowledge seems to be measured by right desire, and right desire seems to be measured by correct practical knowledge; having the moral virtues seems to require having practical wisdom, but having practical wisdom seems to require having the moral virtues. Aquinas’s account of practical wisdom is deeply indebted to Aristotle, but Aquinas finds a kind of grounding for practical wisdom in an understanding of human nature at some remove from Aristotle’s, developing a moral psychology that is, in many respects, both richer and more powerful than what we find in some contemporary neo-Aristotelian work. Aquinas devoted considerable attention to both the character of virtue and the nature of vice. He provided a special account of the way in which human beings were oriented toward human good and away from bad that allowed ample room for accounting for the many ways most of us routinely fail to lead entirely well-ordered lives. I will take us into some of the detail of Aquinas’s account of practical wisdom in search of theoretical wisdom about virtue, vice, and human nature.

 

Introduction

I will start with what ought to be a commonplace—it is a condition on the intelligibility of animal movement that an animal moves toward what is good for an animal of its kind and avoids what is bad for an animal of its kind. There are exceptions, of course, especially among domestic animals. While even a domestic goat knows to avoid eating tansy, this aversion seems to be beyond the capacities of domestic sheep, and cats and dogs that spend too much time as objects of intense human emotional engagement become strange. But when a non-human animal seems incapable of going for the things that it belongs to such animals to go for, or else avoiding the things that it belongs to such animals to avoid, one wants to know what has gone wrong. Is the animal sick? Are we seeing the unhappy aftermath of myopic animal husbandry practices?

 

That is the sort of point at issue in the commonplace. And the commonplace frames study of animals generally. For example, there will be certain things one looks for in the course of identifying a new species of animal that point to what animals generally have to seek or to avoid, such as: How does this sort manage nutrition? How does it protect itself? How does it reproduce? In this sense, understanding living things immediately catches us up in very general and rudimentary concern over good and bad, given the kind of living thing in question.[i] I take it that no one engaged in serious study of, say, gray wolves, will become concerned over the possibility that she may be wrong in thinking that Wolf #355 is interested in breeding. She may be wrong in thinking that interest in breeding is what drives Wolf #355 to haunt the edges of that pack this week. He may be after food. He may be trying to join the pack even though membership rarely carries opportunities to breed. But there is no question that food, pack membership, and breeding possibilities are attractive to wolves—the sorts of things that wolves pursue, things that are, for the wolf qua wolf, good.

 

In short, if we want to understand what is going on with an animal, the framework for our investigation—the thing that sets the terms for our work—is some growing understanding of specific good—that is, what is good for that species of living thing. This is so even when we move from the level of the whole living thing in its characteristic environment to concern over detailed aspects of its biology.

 

Why does the chemical composition of the primate’s breast milk change? The infant’s need for such-and-such is communicated to the mother’s body during nursing, and the production of breast milk matches the infant’s need. At this level of description, it does not matter whether or not the primates are human beings.

 

When we turn our attention to human beings’ voluntary acts, however, even though we operate within the same framework of good and bad that guides study of organic chemistry or neurobiology or vision or digestion, we start to lose our grip. What counts as a good human act? What counts as a good way for human beings to manage the reproduction of living individuals? of the species? of modes of social life and interaction?

 

I have some confidence that I will not be able to interact with a seriously disturbed person in a healing way unless I can see the sense in which her way of moving around in the world is meant to secure a good sort of thing for a human to secure, or else to avoid something that is a bad sort of thing for one of us. Still, the last thing I usually would say straight off when confronted with someone who avoids bathing, screams profanities when approached, and scuttles into dark places rather than make eye contact with anyone is that she is engaged in reasonable pursuit of human good. The merely formal point—living things seek what is good, given the kinds of living things that they are, and avoid what is bad for such kinds of things—may frame our understanding of what people are up to. Nevertheless, what is understandable in humans’ ways of moving around in the world dramatically exceeds the range of ways of organizing one’s life that count as tending to reasonable and harmonious pursuit of human good, or avoidance of what’s bad. Folly, greed, pettiness, cowardice, injustice, despair, cruelty, negligence, callousness, selfishness, and a wide range of more unusual, boutique practical orientations can be perfectly understandable in this minimal sense: they can qualify as directed toward human good, or away from things that are bad for humans. For all that, if we can make sense of these orientations in ourselves or in others, this is because we can see them as attempts—however benighted—to move toward good or away from bad.

 

Aquinas takes this bit of wisdom about species of living things from Aristotle and develops the point with reference to voluntary human acts in ways that draw from other sources—notably from Augustine, but also from Ambrose, from some strands of Stoic thought, from saints, from scripture, from his teacher, his contemporaries, and others. Aquinas provides a fairly rich and strangely elegant map of human moral psychology. Our choices and actions are all inflected by reason in the sense at issue in treating us as going toward real or apparent human good, away from what is or seems to be bad. This is how what we are up to is potentially understandable even when we are acting in ways that are recognizably unpleasant, short-sighted, or foolish so that human appear, as my youngest sister once put it, to “lack the sense that God gave to mammals.”[ii]

 

On Aquinas’s schema, we are the animals with intellect. This is, for him, a metaphysical point rather than just an observation about the relative complexity or range of our sort of thinking, feeling, and wanting as contrasted, say, with the sort we think that we find in other species. And part of what is interesting about us, as we find ourselves, is that reasonable and harmonious pursuit of human good is a problem for us. Acquired virtues are cultivated, learned ways of coping with that trouble. And acquired practical wisdom is, for Aquinas, a cardinal virtue.

 

For obvious reasons, acquired virtues—strengths developed through education, acculturation, practice, and such, the nascent forms of which may begin in dense and complex attachment to caretakers very early in life—are the strengths of interest to most people in my line of work, to educators, and to social scientists. The other sort of virtue important for Aquinas is infused virtue—strength that comes from God and orients us to a supernatural end. I am among those fans of Aquinas who think that we ignore infused virtue at our peril if we are interested in his account of human life, human nature, and the place of substantive good in understanding how things go for human beings. Nevertheless, in what follows by virtue I will mean acquired virtue.

 

I will begin by giving a quick and crude sketch of Aquinas’s understanding of human moral psychology, by way of introducing his diagnosis of how it is that acting well can be such a problem for us. Moral virtue will come into the story to help us begin to address the problem, without entirely solving it, and practical wisdom—an intellectual strength—will help steady and steer the vessel whose patches and ongoing repair have been the work of moral virtue.

[i] The best work on this topic in contemporary philosophy is by Michael Thompson. For his most concise treatment, see “Apprehending Human Form,” in Anthony O’Hear, editor, Modern Moral Philosophy, (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2004), pp.47-74.

[ii] Lisa Winans in conversation.

For the full paper and others in this series, visit http://jubileecentre.ac.uk/1674/conferences/character-wisdom-and-virtue

Or click here for the paper: Aquinas on Practial Wisdom

Jennifer A. Frey on action, knowledge, and human goodness | Our Scholars at Oxford for Jubilee Centre Conference on Character, Wisdom, and Virtue, January 5-7, 2017

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Photo by Jennifer A. Frey.

In early January, four of our scholars—Howard Nusbaum, David Carr, John Haldane, and Robert C. Roberts—and our 2 Principal Investigators—Jennifer Frey and Candace Vogler—all participated in a conference on Character, Wisdom, and Virtue held January 5, 6, and 7, 2017 at Oriel College, Oxford, UK, sponsored by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham, UK. We are pleased to feature their abstracts and papers here on the Virtue Blog, with many thanks to the Jubilee Centre. http://jubileecentre.ac.uk

frey_jennifer_15_2aJennifer A. Frey is an Assistant Professor in the Philosophy Department at the University of South Carolina. Prior to joining the Philosophy faculty, 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.

Below you will find her short abstract, followed by a link to the larger paper discussed at the conference, “Action, Knowledge, and Human Goodness:A Prolegomena to a Theory of Practical Wisdom”.

ABSTRACT: “Action, Knowledge, and Human Goodness:A Prolegomena to a Theory of Practical Wisdom”

Aquinas and Anscombe both held that human action essentially involves a certain kind of practical self- knowledge. I argue that this knowledge is knowledge of action under descriptions that the agent can in principle connect to her general conception of how to live a good human life. An agent demonstrates her ability to make such connections by giving reasons. These rational connections between the particular action and the general practical knowledge of how to live are made explicit in the construction of practical syllogisms, understood as heuristic devices that make explicit the practically rational grammar of the act itself. Such an account of action, I argue, is the necessary foundation for any virtue ethics in which practical wisdom plays an important role. For any theory of practical wisdom must be able to show how it is the virtue that perfects the practical intellect, the faculty that provides the faculty of choice with a particular object of pursuit or avoidance, under some descriptions that can be rationally related to happiness.

Read the full paper here: http://jubileecentre.ac.uk/userfiles/jubileecentre/pdf/conference-papers/CharacterWisdomandVirtue/Frey_J.pdf

Varieties of Virtue Ethics collection features our scholars

We are very happy to announce a new book that will be of great interest to researchers, students, and general readers concerned with the many contemporary varieties and applications of virtue ethics: Varieties of Virtue Ethics, Edited by David Carr, James Arthur, and Kristján Kristjánsson, from Palgrave Macmillan (December 2016). Edited by two of our Project Scholars, David Carr and Kristján Kristjánsson, both at the University of Birmingham Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, the book explores recent developments in ethics of virtue, and includes three essays by scholars of the project Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.

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The collection acknowledges the Aristotelian roots of modern virtue ethics, with its emphasis on the moral importance of character, while also recognizing that more recent accounts of virtue have been shaped by many other influences, such as Aquinas, Hume, Nietzsche, Hegel and Marx, and Confucius and Lao-tzu. The authors examine the influence of virtue ethics on disciplines such as psychology, sociology and theology, and also look at the wider public, professional and educational implications of virtue ethics.

Essays in the volume include a chapter by our Virtue project scholars John Haldane, who is the J. Newton Rayzor Sr. Distinguished Chair in Philosophy at Baylor University, on “Virtue Ethics in the Medieval Period;” our Principal Investigator Candace Vogler, the David E. and Clara B. Stern Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago on “Virtue, the Common Good, and Self-Transcendence; ” Robert C. Roberts, Professor of Ethics and Emotion Theory at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, and a joint Chair with the Royal Institute of Philosophy, on “Varieties of Virtue Ethics;” and David Carr, Professor Emeritus, University of Edinburgh and Professor of Ethics and Education, University of Birmingham Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, on “Educating for the Wisdom of Virtue.”

For more information, including the table of contents, visit http://www.palgrave.com/us/book/9781137591760.

Universal Human Virtues Found in Arabic Literature

These remarks correspond to our latest Virtue Talk podcast with Tahera Qutbuddin, which you can listen to here.

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“Qur’an with “tassbeh”” – photo by Doctor Yuri

I grew up in Mumbai, India, studied Arabic at Ayn Shams University in Cairo, Egypt, and came to Harvard University in the US for my PhD, which I completed in 1999. After that, I taught for a year at Yale University, then for two years at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. In 2002, I joined the University of Chicago, where I’m currently Associate Professor of Arabic Literature in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC). At the University of Chicago, I’m also affiliated with the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES), the Committee on South Asian Studies (COSAS), and the Divinity School. And for the past six years, I’ve chaired a non-traditional major in the College named Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities (IS-Hum).

My work centers on classical Arabic literature. I have a deep interest in literary materials of the early Islamic period that preach virtue, which is my connection with the Virtues group of scholars. Overall, my scholarship focuses on intersections of the literary, the religious, and the political in classical Arabic poetry and prose. My areas of research are classical Arabic oratory and Islamic preaching (khutba); the Quran, traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, and the sermons and sayings of the first Shia imam and fourth Sunni caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib; and Fatimid-Tayyibi history and literature (the Fatimids were a Shia dynasty who ruled North Africa and Egypt from the 10th through the 12th centuries, and the Tayyibis are a Muslim denomination in Yemen and India, who look to the Fatimid legacy). I’ve also worked on Arabic in India.

My first journal article, which I published in 1995 while I was a graduate student at Harvard, was titled “Healing the Soul: Perspectives of Medieval Muslim Writers.” I discussed the ideas of certain key scholars in the Islamic tradition who used the metaphor of the physician and healing to promote virtue and faith. I found that the earliest accounts were based in either Greek ethics or the Qur’an, and the Greek aspects were rendered over three centuries into an Islamic matrix.

In my first monograph—published by Brill in 2005 titled Al-Mu’ayyad al-Shirazi and Fatimid Da’wa Poetry: A Case of Commitment in Classical Arabic Literature—I combined material and approaches from several disciplines to analyze the poetry of the 11th century scholar, al-Muʾayyad al-Shīrāzī, who was chief missionary for the Fatimid caliphs of Egypt. Al-Mu’ayyad is acknowledged as a giant in the Fatimid philosophical tradition, but none had worked on his poetry before. Because it is underpinned by esoteric doctrine, its true significance cannot be decoded without careful perusal of its philosophy and history. I found and used manuscripts of his poetry housed in private collections in India, and I also used an eclectic package of literary, historical, and theological primary sources, many of them also in manuscript form. I argued that al-Muʾayyad flew in the face of the rival Abbasid court’s conventional panegyric to create a new, very personal, “committed” form of Arabic poetry, with themes, imagery, and audiences consonant with his religio-political cause.

My currently ongoing monograph project is tentatively titled Classical Arabic Oratory: Religion, Politics and Orality-Based Aesthetics of Public Address in the Early Islamic World, for which I’m honored to have been awarded fellowships by the Carnegie Corporation and the American Council of Learned Societies. In the 7th and 8th centuries AD, oration was a crucial piece of the Arabian literary landscape, reigning supreme as its preeminent genre of prose. It was an integral component of pre-Islamic and early Islamic leadership, and it also had significant political, military and religious functions. Its themes and aesthetics had enormous influence on subsequent artistic prose. Little has come forth on the subject, due to substantial challenges posed by an archaic lexicon (these are hard texts to crack!), a vast array of sources, and the sticky question of dating. But I believe an approach sensitive to its oral underpinnings can meaningfully delineate key parameters of the genre. I’m analyzing the texts and contexts of these earliest Arabic speeches and sermons, and I hope to construct thereby the first comprehensive theory of classical Arabic oratory.

In the past five years, much of my intellectual energy has been directed to a new publication series titled “Library of Arabic Literature,” and it has been a joy and a privilege to be part of this emerging venture. In 2010, I was invited to its newly-forming Editorial Board, whose mandate is to produce facing-page Arabic editions and English translations of significant works of Arabic literature, with an emphasis on the 7th to 19th centuries, encompassing a wide range of genres, including poetry, religion, philosophy, law, science, and history. The project is supported by a grant from the New York University Abu Dhabi Institute, and its volumes are published by NYU Press. Its Editorial Board comprises a team of Arabic/Islamic professors at educational institutions in the US and UK. We meet twice a year in New York and Abu Dhabi, and in the first five years, we have produced a resounding 35 volumes. In 2015, our grant was renewed for another five years, and in this second phase we aim to bring out an additional 40 volumes.

Many of the really important texts of early Islamic literature remain in manuscript form, and many have not been translated into English, or have been translated in less than lucid renderings. In addition to my analytical research work, I’m also committed to making these masterpieces of Arabic literature available in reliable editions and engaging translations, especially those among them that promote virtue and contemplation.

In this context, I edited and translated a volume of Sayings, Sermons, and Teachings of Ali ibn Abi Talib, whom I mentioned before, who was the cousin and son in law of the prophet Muhammad, and the first Shia imam and the fourth Sunni caliph. (Library of Arabic Literature, NYU Press, 2013). The volume was compiled by al-Quda’i, who was a judge in medieval Cairo. The book is titled A Treasury of Virtues, and in beautiful desert metaphors and brilliantly pithy Arabic, it enjoins universal human virtues such as justice, wisdom, and kindness, presenting them in an Islamic and Quranic framework. For example, “ The best words are backed by deeds” “Oppressing the weak is the worst oppression” “Knowledge is a noble legacy” “The true worth of a man is measured by the good he does” “There is no treasure richer than contentment” “A just leader is better than abundant rainfall.”

I’ve recently completed editing and translating another volume for the series, this one being a compilation of the ethical and doctrinal sayings of the prophet Muhammad titled Light in the Heavens, by the same compiler, al-Quda’i. In a happy coincidence, its tqinstagram.pngrelease date is today, November 8. The prophet Muḥammad (d. 632) is regarded by Muslims as God’s messenger to humankind. In addition to God’s words—the Qurʾan—which he conveyed over the course of his life as it was revealed to him, Muḥammad’s own words—called hadith—have a very special place in the lives of Muslims. They wield an authority second only to the Qurʾan and are cited by Muslims as testimonial texts in a wide array of religious, scholarly and popular literature—such as liturgy, exegesis, jurisprudence, oration, poetry, linguistics and more. Preachers, politicians and scholars rely on hadith to establish the truth of their positions, and lay people cite them to each other in their daily lives. These hadith disclose the ethos of the earliest period of Islam, the culture and society of 7th century Arabia. Since they also form an integral part of the Muslim psyche, they reveal the values and thinking of the medieval and modern Muslim community. Most importantly, they provide a direct window into the inspired vision of one of the most influential humans in history. These are a few sample hadith from the volume, which list traits that God loves: “God loves gentleness in everything,” “God is beautiful and loves beauty,” “God loves those who beseech him,” “God loves those who are virtuous, humble, and pious,” “God loves the believer who makes an honest living,” “God loves the grieving heart”.

Among the recent articles I’ve published, some are on Ali’s preaching. In one recent article I examine Ali’s melding of core Islamic teachings of the Quran enjoining piety and good works, with the oral, nature-based cultural ethos of seventh-century Arabia. Another recent article—and this is the one I shared with the Virtue scholars’ group in December—looks at Ali’s contemplations on this world and the hereafter in the context of his life and times. I argue that Ali encourages his followers to enjoy a happy life on earth and be grateful for God’s innumerable blessings, yet always keep preparing for the imminent hereafter, by cultivating virtuous traits and performing virtuous deeds. I’d like to read out to you a short excerpt from one of his sermons from this article:

O you who reproach this world while being so willingly deceived by her deceptions and tricked by her falsehoods! Do you choose to be deceived by her yet censure her? Should you be accusing her, or should she be accusing you?! When did she lure you or deceive? Was it by her destruction of your father and grandfather and great grandfather through decay? Or by her consigning your mother and grandmother and great grandmother to the earth? How carefully did your palms tend them! How tenderly did your hands nurse them! Hoping against hope for a cure, begging physician after physician for a medicament. On that fateful morning, your medicines did not suffice them, your weeping did not help, and your apprehension was of no benefit. Your appeal remained unanswered, and you could not push death away from them although you applied all your strength. By this, the world warned you of your own approaching end. She illustrated by their death your own.

Indeed, this world is a house of truth for whomsoever stays true to her, a house of wellbeing for whomsoever understands her, a house of riches for whomsoever gathers her provisions, a house of counsel for whomsoever takes her advice. She is a mosque for God’s loved ones, a place where God’s angels pray, where God’s revelation alights, where God’s saints transact, earning his mercy and profiting paradise.

In addition to the publications I’ve talked about, I always look to avail of opportunities to reach outside the ivory tower, and have lectured over the years on general topics related to Islamic history and Arabic literature, particularly on topics that promote goodwill among the human family. Two years ago, I gave a talk on “Imam Ali’s Preaching of Peace and Pluralism” at a UNESCO conference in Paris organized by its Iraq office titled “The contribution of Ali ibn Abi Talib’s Thought to a Culture of Peace and Intercultural Dialogue.” Just recently in September of this year I helped organize a conference in Kolkata, India, on exemplars of communal harmony in pre- and post-Independence India, that was hosted jointly by my father’s educational foundation Qutbi Jubilee Scholarship Program (QJSP) and the University of Calcutta, and was attended by the Vice Chancellor of the University of Calcutta, and the West Bengal Minister for Higher Education, and widely covered by the local media.

I’m very pleased to be part of the Templeton Foundation’s project Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life. I’m grateful to the Templeton Foundation for funding it, and to Candace Vogler for inviting me to participate. This has been a wonderful opportunity for me to expand my horizons, and bring my work into conversation with the major Western philosophical and theological traditions. I’ve especially enjoyed the practical perspectives of psychology and economics brought by the social scientists in the group on questions of virtue and happiness. It’s been a privilege to listen to these amazing scholars.

I’ve found many parallels with the classical Islamic traditions I work with, and hope to make use of these new insights and apply them to my own work. For example, many of the group’s scholars work on Thomas Aquinas, and the harmony of faith and reason that is expressed in his teachings resonates with several schools of Islamic thought, especially one that I work with, the Fatimid-Ismaili school. Others work on Aristotle, and his cardinal virtues of justice, temperance, wisdom, and courage are strongly reflected in the early Islamic aphoristic material, and in the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad and Imam Ali. The material my colleagues on the Virtue Scholars team work on is itself fascinating, and the questions and methodologies they bring to bear on it are equally illuminating.

I’m also happy to have the opportunity to present some Islamic approaches to virtue, to these scholars who may not have engaged with the Islamic tradition in any depth before.

A significant prompt that has come out of this workshop for me is a renewed emphasis on the importance of harnessing ideas to promote virtue and happiness on the ground. This is academic work, but it’s also very personal. The research on the hows and whys of a meaningful life discussed at the workshop is really valuable. For me, the natural corollary to the expert analysis is how to translate this information into becoming a better human being myself, and to work toward promoting kindness and virtue in the many communities I’m part of. The research, both individual and collaborative is important. But it’s equally important to think about how to use that practically to be a nice, kind person oneself, and to promote niceness and kindness among the people we live. I’m delighted to be part of this ambitious project, and I hope that together we can make a difference, and offer some contribution to a better and more peaceful world.


Tahera Qutbuddin is Associate Professor of Arabic Literature at the University of Chicago and Scholar with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.