Podcast: “Redemptive love and comic mercy in the short stories of Flannery O’Connor” | Sacred & Profane Love

In Episode 1 of the podcast Sacred & Profane Love, philosopher Jennifer A. Frey has a conversation with the Thomist theologian, Father Thomas Joseph White, O.P., about Aquinas on grace and charity, and how Thomistic concepts of grace and charity operate in the short stories of Flannery O’Connor. The episode covers themes of grace, redemption, the comic unveiling of the human person to itself, and the violence of Divine Love as a necessary antidote to human folly and brokenness.

 

Works under discussion in Episode 1:
Flannery O’Connor: “A Good Man is Hard to Find,””Greenleaf,” “Revelation,” “The Enduring Chill”
Thomas Aquinas:  ST I-II q. 26-28 and ST III, q. 60, q. 64-65

Thomas Joseph White, O.P. completed his doctoral studies in theology at Oxford University, and entered the Order of Preachers in 2003. His research and teaching have focused particularly on topics related to Thomistic metaphysics and Christology as well as Roman Catholic-Reformed ecumenical dialogue. He is the author of Wisdom in the Face of Modernity: A Study in Thomistic Natural Theology (Sapientia Press, 2009), The Incarnate Lord: A Thomistic Study in Christology (The Catholic University of America Press, 2015), and Exodus (Brazos Press, 2016). He has edited several books, and is co-editor of the theological journal Nova et Vetera (English edition). In 2011 he was appointed an ordinary member of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas.

 

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.

NEXT: Episode 2: “Transfiguring love in The Brothers Karamazov” with David McPherson

 

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.

Register for Stephen Brock, “St. Thomas Aquinas on Free Choice”

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Our visiting scholarsStephen L. Brock (Pontifical University of the Holy Cross), will be leading this summer seminar “St. Thomas Aquinas on Free Choice” through the Lumen Christi Institute at the University of Chicago.

JUNE 27 -JULY 4
University of Chicago

This seminar will be a five-day, intensive discussion aimed at understanding and evaluating St. Thomas Aquinas’ account of liberum arbitrium and of the psychological and metaphysical principles that underlie it. The sessions will center on passages from the Summa Theologiae, but we will also refer to other works of Aquinas, such as the De Malo and the Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, and to pertinent texts from other philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Anscombe.

sb20170512_3793Stephen L. Brock is a priest of the Prelature of Opus Dei.  He is Ordinary Professor of Medieval Philosophy at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome. He earned a B.A. in Philosophy at the University of Chicago and a PhD in Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto.  Brock writes widely on Thomas Aquinas and action theory, ethics, and metaphysics. He is the author of The Philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas. A Sketch (Wipf & Stock, 2015) and Action & Conduct: Thomas Aquinas and the Theory of Action(T&T Clark, 1998).  During 2017 he was a visiting scholar in the Philosophy Department at the University of Chicago, collaborating in the project “Virtue, Happiness, and Meaning in Life.

 

Apply by February 15!

 

Now in their tenth year, these seminars are open to doctoral students in the humanities, social sciences, and other relevant areas of study. Room, board, and a travel stipend will be included for accepted applicants. Each seminar includes a week of intensive discussion based on close reading of the assigned texts, as well as daily presentations given by the professor and student participants. A deep knowledge of the material is not required to apply.
For details about the seminars and the application requirements,
APPLICATIONS ARE DUE ON FEBRUARY 15

Register for Wojciech Giertych,”The Moral Theology of Aquinas: Is it for Individuals?” and afternoon seminar on infused virtues, Feb 8-9

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We’re pleased to share these events presented by our partner, the Lumen Christi Institute. For further information, contact Michael Bradley, Communications and Events Coordinator, mbradley@lumenchristi.org.
On Thursday, February 8, the Theologian of the Pontifical Household, Wojciech Giertych,will deliver a lecture at the University of Chicago titled “The Moral Theology of Aquinas: Is It For Individuals?” The lecture is free and open to the public and will begin at 4:30pm. Registration is requested: https://www.lumenchristi.org/events/979.

On Friday, February 9, Giertych will lead an afternoon seminar for graduate students and faculty on “Grace, Free Choice, and the Infused Virtues.” The seminar will be held atGavin House, home of the Lumen Christi Institute. Registration is required. Seminar readings are available beforehand to participants. Please register here:https://www.lumenchristi.org/events/981

Fr. Wojciech Giertych, OP, is Professor of Moral Theology at the Angelicum in Rome, where he has taught since 1994. In 1975, he entered the Polish Province of the Dominican Order. He studied theology in Kraków and was ordained a priest in 1981. For a number of years Fr. Giertych was a professor of moral theology and the Student Master, a formator, in the Dominican House of Studies in Kraków. In 1998, Fr. Giertych was called to the General Council of the Dominican Order, serving first as the Socius for Central and Eastern Europe, and then as the Socius for the Intellectual Life. In 2005, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Fr. Giertych the Theologian of the Papal Household – a position he currently holds under Pope Francis.

New and forthcoming books by our scholars

9781107155329Michael Gorman, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Catholic University of America is the author of Aquinas on the Metaphysics of the Hypostatic Union, June 2017, Cambridge University Press.

Kristján Kristjánsson, Deputy Director in the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues and Professor of Character Education and Virtue Ethics at the University of Birmingham, is the author of Virtuous Emotions, forthcoming in May 2018, Oxford University Press.

Heather C. Lench, Associate Professor & Department Head, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Texas A&M University, is an editor on the volume Functions of Emotion, Springer, in January 2018.

 

51fVH4MrJuL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg514VAhuihzL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgOwen Flanagan, James B. Duke Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Neurobiology at Duke University is the author of The Geography of Morals: Varieties of Moral PossibilityOxford University Press, 2017 and co-editor of The Moral Psychology of Anger, forthcoming from Rowman and Littlefield.

 

 

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Nancy Snow, Director of the Institute for the Study of Human Flourishing, edited The Oxford Handbook of Virtue, Oxford University Press; it includes a chapter on Aquinas by Candace Vogler.

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 Paul T. P. Wong,Founding President of the Meaning-Centered Counselling Institute, Inc., has a chapter in The Routledge International Handbook of Critical Positive Psychology, edited by Nicholas J. L. Brown, Tim Lomas, Francisco Jose Eiroa-Orosa. London, UK: Routledge.

Assessing the difference between meaning and purpose

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This is part 4 of a 5-part series, “Don’t Ask about ‘the Meaning of Life’ (An argument in five blog posts)”.

Part #4: Assessing the difference between meaning and purpose.

In the three previous posts, we saw that the question of the meaning of life is a late 19th Century invention, which effectively displaced what had previously been the dominant question about human life, namely its purpose or goal.  Now we may take stock of the significance of this shift.

 

To suppose that the question of “the meaning of life” is a timeless, universal question, would be to insist that it captures what is formulated in terms of the question about man’s ultimate end or good or purpose.  This would be very hard to sustain.  The question of the purpose of life, if taken seriously, is intrinsically teleological and essentialist.  It presumes that there is such a thing as true human fulfillment, rooted in human nature, which reflects a definite purpose or intention of its maker.  In Aristotelian terms, the question implicates three of the four causes: in asking about the end (final cause) of man, it presumes that there is an essential human nature (formal cause), which has been communicated to man from an agent (efficient cause).

 

Put another way, to ask after the purpose or end of human life is at once to create a field for practical moral questions – How should we live? For what end should I act? – and to frame that field in the context of fundamentally metaphysical questions – what is the true origin, nature, and destiny of human beings?  This is exactly what we see reflected in the the design of the whole of Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae – which places the moral reflection of the Secunda Pars (previously mentioned) in relation to God, as creator of human nature (explored in the Prima Pars), and Who alone can lead us to the fulfillment of our end (explored in the Tertia Pars).

 

By contrast, the question of the meaning of life almost seems formulated precisely to avoid both the moral field and metaphysical frame.  Meaning is subjective, placing an emphasis on the interior life, feelings, emotions, awareness, consciousness.  What makes me feel purposive doesn’t necessarily speak to the question of an intrinsic, essential purpose.  “Meaning” does indeed suggest directionality – something is meaningful or significant if it makes reference to something else.  But this is not the directionality of action toward an end, rather it is the directionality of symbol to what is symbolized.  To ask about the meaning of life is almost to ask an aesthetic question: what will my life evoke, what will it represent?

 

As a consequence, notice what questions further arise after we open up the question of “the meaning of life”: is it the same for everyone, or a matter of individual perspective?  Do we make meaning, or discover it?  Do we entertain the possibility that there is no meaning?  If my life feels meaningful to me, is it really meaningful?  These are existentialist questions – questions of real moral seriousness, to be sure, but raised from a position disconnected from a moral or metaphysical framework.  By contrast, notice what further questions arise from the question of the purpose or end of life: where does it come from?  How can I achieve it?  Is this or that action compatible with it?  These are questions of theology and ethics – questions of moral seriousness strongly rooted in a metaphysical framework.  The question of life’s meaning places an emphasis on subjective fulfillment; the question of life’s purpose can include that, but relates the notion of personal fulfillment to a question that draws one outside of oneself: what is my life for, how can I bring my life into its intended order.  It is the difference between asking what might happen to make me feel fulfilled given my circumstances, and asking what should fulfill me in light of the true structure of reality.

 

So consider the kind of answers one could give to the old, more permanent question about the goal or end of life: virtue, happiness, union with God, life everlasting.  “Why did God make you? God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.”  No wonder the authors of the Baltimore Catechism, like Thomas Aquinas, could use the question of human purpose to structure an instruction in Christian wisdom.  Do answers like this even make sense as answers to the question of the meaning of life?  One would have to say, in Kierkegaardian fashion, only if one chose to make the leap of faith, to believe those answers, to make them meaningful for you.

 

Alasdair MacIntyre has defended a teleological approach to ethics by connecting it to the possibility of making life intelligible as a narrative.  This might sound like it is a version of making life “meaningful,” although MacIntyre strongly denies an easy equation between an Aristotelian purpose and existential meaning.  Simply finding meaning cannot be the telos of life.  True, if one is not aware of a purpose in one’s life, one will feel that one’s life is meaningless, but that doesn’t mean that “living a meaningful life” makes sense as the goal of life.  MacIntyre is even willing to allow that Kierkegaard, for instance, did have a teleological view of life.  Kierkegaard departed from Aristotle in his understanding of the mode of perceiving one’s actions as oriented toward a telos.  MacIntyrean narrative is a kind of rationality, but Kierkegaard (as Tolstoy) was eager to place “meaning” outside of rationality.  For Kierkegaard, man’s fundamental motives are more a matter of non-rational psychological mechanisms – hence Kierkegaard’s “ethical” reasoning is closer to “aesthetic” feeling than to more familiar forms of rational intelligibility.

 

So it is not a surprise that, even when taken seriously as the ultimate question of human life, it is widely recognized that the question of the meaning of life is highly personal.  Unlike the question of the end of man, which is a general question about the essential good of human nature as such, the question of the meaning of life is individualistic and particular.  The strength, and the weakness, of the question is that it seems to put the weight of responsibility on the one asking it to supply an answer from his or her own private, inarticulate resources.

 

As a consequence, those who take the question of the meaning of life most seriously seem to turn the question around, and make it less a question of abstract moral theorizing than a question of personal commitment.  As earnestly characterized by Viktor Frankl, the question of the meaning of life seems to transform from a common question about human life, to a personal question about finding one’s unique vocation.  Describing the challenge of life in the concentration camp, he says:

We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

 

These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way.

 

So even for Frankl, concerned as he is with helping to find meaning in the face of what could so easily seem meaningless, the question of the meaning of life admits of no general answer, and is not even the right question to ask.

 

Next:  POST #5, EPILOGUE: THE MEANING OF LIFE AND THE CRISIS OF REASON

 


Joshua P. Hochschild is the Monsignor Robert R. Kline Professor of Philosophy at Mt. Saint Mary’s University.

Cultural relativism

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Note: This is a 3-part series of the essay Quid Est Veritas: On Truth and Moral Relativism.

Part III: Cultural Relativism

 

Many people come to affirm moral relativism because there is so much moral disagreement, both within a culture and across cultures. These people think that the fact that there is no agreement is a sign that there is nothing to agree about, no objective truth that cuts across cultures.

 

This disagreement isn’t recent either.  Certainly the Jews and the Romans profoundly disagreed about how to live, about what was OK to do and say and what wasn’t.  The ancient historian Herodotus, who was writing in mid fifth century BC, relates the following anecdote of the King of Persia:

 

He summoned the Greeks who happened to be present at his court, and asked them what they would take to eat the dead bodies of their fathers. They replied that they would not do it for any money in the world. Later, in the presence of the Greeks, and through an interpreter, so that they could understand what was said, he asked some Indians…who do in fact eat their parents’ dead bodies, what they would take to burn them. They uttered a cry of horror and forbade him to mention such a dreadful thing (Herodotus 440BCE; trans. Sélincourt, 1988, pp. 219- 20).

 

Insofar as we take Herodotus to be putting forth a view here, it would be what we now call cultural relativism.  This is a species of moral relativism insofar as it says that morality is relative to cultures, and it is shared cultural beliefs and practices that determine what is morally true for the people who are born into it.  So, what is morally true for an aboriginal tribe in what is now called Australia is true for them but not true for we Americans, and vice versa.

 

Cultural relativism is a species of moral relativism.  A cultural relativist believes that morality is relative to cultures, and that it is shared cultural beliefs and practices that determine what is morally acceptable and mandatory for the people who are brought up under them and for no one else.

 

A version of cultural relativism was put forward in 1947 by the American Anthropological Association, in response to the UN Declaration of the Universal Rights of Man.  The AAA was against such a universal declaration on explicitly relativist grounds.  They argued that moral belief and practice is entirely determined by culture and that there is no way to legitimately demonstrate that the values or customs of one culture are superior to any other.  They further chastised western political institutions for imposing their own culturally situated ideology of “universal rights” upon other nations.  In their statement on human rights, the anthropologists asked:

 

How can the proposed declaration be applicable to all human beings, and not be a statement of rights conceived only in terms of the values prevalent in the countries of Western Europe and America?[i]

 

Their worry was that the declaration of universal human rights was just colonialism masquerading as liberation.  Unmask this, and all we are left with is the ideology of the “white man’s burden” all over again.   So, instead of declaring a regime of universal rights that all cultures had to respect, the anthropologists argued for “respect for differences between cultures” which is “validated by the scientific fact that no technique of qualitatively evaluating cultures has been discovered.” (1947, 542)  The anthropologists also claimed explicitly that:

 

Standards and values are relative to the culture from which they derive so that any attempt to formulate postulates that grow out of the beliefs or moral codes of one culture must to that extent detract from the applicability of any declaration of human rights to mankind as a whole. (Ibid)

 

The first thing to say about this fascinating document is that its appeal to science does no argumentative work.  For just as there is no “scientific” method to “qualitatively evaluate” moral beliefs, there is also no “scientific” method to determine that qualitative measures are the only legitimate standards of knowledge.  To say that science hasn’t yielded an adequate moral theory is just to state the obvious and pretend that something substantive follows from it.  But we cannot infer from the fact that science doesn’t yield moral knowledge the conclusion that there can in principle be no moral knowledge, as moral knowledge may simply not be scientific in character.

 

Setting debates about what moral knowledge is aside, notice that here we have the familiar refrain to “respect diversity” rather than interfere and impose, because moral standards are relative to cultures, and that failure to recognize this belies a crude parochialism.  This position doesn’t have to assume, by the way, that other cultures have to respect diversity as well, so it needn’t be self-defeating in the ways we have previously discussed. [There is a complication here, however, about a so-called “right of men to live in terms of their own traditions” casually asserted in the document, but let’s be charitable and pretend it isn’t there]. The statement just says that within our western culture we should respect diversity and be tolerant of cultures dramatically different from our own.  This may mean, by the way, that women continue to be treated as inferiors to men and denied political rights, education, and any semblance of control over what happens to their bodies, that homosexuals may be executed, that honor killings may continue, or any other number of things that look like moral atrocities from our contemporary western point of view.  The consistent cultural relativist will, on these matters, have to live and let live.

 

We can further complicate this issue.  In her wonderful essay, “Trying Out One’s New Sword,” Mary Midgley describes the following custom of Samurai warriors in Medieval Japan:

 

There is, it seems, a verb in classical Japanese which means ‘to try out one’s new sword on a chance wayfarer.’  (The word is tsujigiri, literally ‘crossroads-cut’).  A Samurai sword had to be tried out because, if it was to work properly, it had to slice through someone at a single blow, from the shoulder to the opposite flank.  Otherwise, the warrior bungled his stroke.  This could injure his honor, offend his ancestors, and even let down his emperor.  So tests were needed, and wayfarers had to be expended.  Any wayfarer would do.”[ii]

What interests me so much about this example is that it brings up yet another iteration of cultural relativism, what Bernard Williams has called “the relativism of distance.”[iii] Williams is deeply skeptical that one can judge any culture when there is significant historical distance between the judger and the time period judged. Williams thinks that moral beliefs are radically contingent, such that it would be a mistake to assume the authority to judge those who came before us. According to Williams, judging the past is basically an empty, self-congratulatory exercise; it is patting oneself on the back for having the good fortune to be born in more enlightened times.  More specifically, Williams argues that appraisal of the past does not satisfy two conditions for genuine moral judgment: (1) shared interests and projects in common, and (2) a practical question of what to do.

 

What can we say to Williams or to our benighted anthropologists?  Is it true that we should refrain from judging cultures?  This is a difficult question, to be sure, because we should be wary of the dangers inherent to judging others—they are real.   But one thing seems certain to me, and that is that adopting cultural relativism doesn’t solve the problem of our relationship to the past and to other cultures, but arguably just makes that relationship more strained and insincere.

 

For one thing, as Mary Midgley herself pointed out, if we adopt relativism in either sense, it makes learning from other cultures and time periods very difficult (if not impossible).  For if we cannot censure another culture we also cannot praise it (for that too, would be to make a moral judgment about it, which I have blocked myself from doing). In order to enter into genuine dialogue and exchange with another culture or time period, we have to be able to identify what we find good and what we find bad in it—otherwise we are entirely closed off to it.  If we cannot enter into this conversation, which depends on moral judgment, then we have no hope of converging on a shared worldview and we have no hope of genuine cultural exchange.  A dialogue can only take place from where we are, a place of real commitments to specific values. Insofar as relativism asks us to give up our commitments, it asks us to be isolated and closed off from other cultures and time periods.  It encourages us to see the other culture as radically other, thus blocking any genuine attempts to seek common ground and a common identity.  This tends to drain the value out of historical and cross-cultural engagement, which can have dangerous political implications.

 

I want now finally to return to our opening remarks about the dictatorship of relativism.  I want to suggest that there is something totalitarian about relativism after all.

 

When all truth is relative, which really means when there is no intelligible notion of truth at all, the rational discourse that is a necessary condition for a viable democracy becomes impossible. As rational animals, we cannot escape the fact that we have to form beliefs and make choices that are informed by them, and we cannot escape the fact that some of these beliefs are going to inform our most basic social institutions.  Some values of necessity must prevail over others. If we refuse to acknowledge any objective measures of truth that are publicly accessible and in principle available to anyone, then all we have left to determine which beliefs and values determine social life is individual or collective will to power (whether this be the will of the oppressor class to maintain its status, or the will of the oppressed classes to gain power, is of no matter).  In such social conditions, the clever and ruthless will prevail, and in absence of the power to persuade people to follow them, they will have to resort to violence to ensure that their private vision prevails over its competitors.

 

So freedom and equality really do depend on truth, they really do depend on some publicly accessible measure to which those in power can be held to account. And so we were wrong to think that relativism is a friend to democracy and equality. Quite the contrary, it is its enemy. For truth helps us to transcend ourselves; without truth, we inevitably collapse into ourselves, into our own private needs and desires.  In that condition, we will either dominate or be dominated; either way, we will not be truly free.

 

[i] “Statement on Human Rights” American Anthropologist, Vol. 49, No. 4, part 1 (Oct-Dec, 1947), pp. 539-543.

[ii] Mary Midgley, “Trying Out One’s New Sword,” Heart and Mind, St. Martin’s Press, 1981.

[iii] Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Routledge, 2011.