Interview: Fr. Stephen Brock | “Everyone needs at least a share in the light of wisdom”

Brock Aquinas Spark

Amichai Amit, PhD student in philosophy at the University of Chicago interviewed Philosopher Fr. Stephen Brock, who will give the public talk “Aquinas and the Life of the Mind” on May 12 at 4pm in Harper 140. Visit for more information, to register (required), and to live-stream.


Amichai Amit: What is the life of the mind? What characterizes the kind contemplation that constitutes this kind of life?

Fr. Stephen Brock: Aquinas regards mind, or intellect, as the very highest form of life.  What distinguishes living beings, at any level, from inanimate things, is that they are intrinsically active.  In some way or another they act on their own, from out of themselves.  They are self-activating.  Even in a plant, the workings of its parts contribute to each other, to the plant’s survival and development as a whole, and to its interactions with its surroundings.  Animals, by their perceptions of things and the desires that result, initiate their own movements and control their interactions with things.  But those that have intellect are agents of their activities to an especially high degree, because they can grasp, and assess, and decide upon, the very purposes or goals that they act for.  It is up to them to dedicate themselves to one kind of activity or another, to adopt their own “way of life.”  In a word, they are free.  They are most alive, because their activities are their own to determine.  They are their own masters; not in every way, of course, or without any conditions, but nevertheless in a very real sense.  And this is because they have intellect, by which they can stand back and see the big picture.  They can take stock of things, and of themselves, and of their relations to things and to each other, and of the various possibilities for activity that are available to them.


Usually, I suppose, if people speak of contemplation at all, it is in contrast to action.  Thinking is one thing; doing is another.  But thinking is certainly an activity in which people can decide to engage.  It can even be one to which people dedicate themselves, what they live for.  I am speaking the kind of thinking whose aim is simply to understand things, to know what they are and why.  Aristotle famously says that all humans desire to know.  When we confront something that we do not understand, we wonder about it; and when we come to understand it, that itself gives us satisfaction, whether or not the understanding is useful for some other purpose that we might have.  In some people the desire for understanding is especially strong, and it can extend very far, even to the desire to understand the whole of reality, as far as our poor minds are capable of that.  That is the desire for wisdom; that is philosophy.  It is very difficult.  But Aquinas took to himself a saying of Aristotle’s, that to catch even a glimpse of the truth about the largest and highest things is more delightful than to understand through and through some smaller, less important thing.


Aquinas also thought that those who engage in contemplation benefit not only themselves but also all of society.  For, even if not everyone has the taste or the aptitude for philosophy, everyone does need at least a share in the light of wisdom.  We all need at least some grasp of the truth about the world and our role in it.  We all know that we exist as parts of something larger than ourselves.  We cannot really be the masters of our lives if we do not have a clear idea of how we fit into the grand scheme of things.

Fr. Stephen Brock is the 2017 Visiting Scholar with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life and the Department of Philosophy at the University of Chicago.

AA: Aristotle, famously, held that the life of contemplation is the happiest life. While many of Aristotle’s notions about virtue and happiness remain appealing to contemporary readers, the notion of contemplative life as happy (and virtuous) may be less immediately clear. Can you explain in a few words in what sense contemplative life is happy, virtuous and meaningful?

SB: It is obvious that moral virtue enhances that freedom of ours, that self-mastery.  It frees us from the waywardness of our passions, from our self-centeredness, from our distractedness, from our thoughtlessness.  But Aristotle also insisted on there being such a thing as intellectual virtue—the cultivation of our minds, mastery over our very thoughts and beliefs, the habit of thinking well and truly about things.  Actually he identified a variety of such habits.  But the primary one, the one that in a way rules over all the others and that perfects and satisfies the mind most of all, is wisdom.  However, I think it is clear that the main reason why he finds the pursuit of wisdom the most satisfying and the most meaningful of all pursuits is that he is sure that it brings us into contact with realities that are even better than us — living realities whose lives are even more perfect, even happier, than ours can be.  He is sure that there are divine beings and that we can know some truth about them.  In one passage he even identifies this as the true purpose of our lives, where their deepest meaning lies: in knowing and serving God.  In doing that, he judges, we even achieve something of a share in the divine happiness.  I think it is clear that if he had thought there were no divine beings, he would have found considerably less value and satisfaction in philosophical contemplation.


AA: In what way (if any), does Aquinas’ conception of ‘the life of the mind’ different from the Aristotelian one? To what extent is this difference inhere in Aquinas’ theology? How relevant is Aquinas’ account of ‘the life of the mind’ to non-Christians in general and in particular to secular readers?

SB: Aquinas endorses Aristotle’s conception very strongly.  But yes, his own conception also differs from it, and this is because of his theological beliefs.  He is convinced that the God whom Aristotle glimpsed, admired, and served from afar, has spoken directly to us, sought to teach us about Himself, and even offered us the possibility of sharing in the life of His mind, in an amazingly intimate and personal way, as His children and His friends.  And so for Aquinas the life of contemplation is above all meditation on the Word of God.  But he thinks that philosophy – good, sound philosophy, pursued according to its own demands – can be very useful in that meditation.


I am not sure what to say about how relevant his account is to non-Christians and to secular readers. It seems to me that for him, the question of how relevant it is to them would really be the question of how relevant it is to his Master’s desire that they come to know Him, how it might serve to open their minds to His light.  Aquinas would think that this is what people need most, whether they realize it or not.


AA: How relevant, do you think, is the notion of life of contemplation to contemporary life? 

SB: Perhaps we have lost the sense of the “wonderfulness” of things, stifled that natural desire to understand.  The screen dazzles, but it does not produce wonder; if anything it hypnotizes.  That is slavery.  Perhaps this is because we have lost contact with the natural world.  It is fascinating even to look at, and even more fascinating to understand.  The mind tires of seeing the same thing on the screen every day; not of seeing the same natural things.


I think contemplation is all the more relevant today, all the more urgent, for being so widely ignored.

Photos and Opening Remarks: Practical Truth and Virtue


On April 21-22, our co-PI, Jennifer A. Frey, hosted a philosophy workshop at the University of South Carolina titled, “Practical Truth: Reflections on the Aristotelian Tradition.”  Frey hosted an international group of philosophers on campus in Columbia, SC to discuss the importance of the concept of practical truth, both historically within the Aristotelian tradition and in terms of its relevance for contemporary philosophical debates about action, practical reason and virtue.  She is currently pursuing the possibility of publishing the essays in an edited volume.

In her opening discussion of practical truth, Professor Frey discussed her reasons for thinking the concept of practical truth is central to a philosophical account of virtue. What follows is a condensed version of her basic argument.

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Let us start with the claim that the knowledge the virtuous person possesses is a distinctive kind of knowledge, what the ancients and medievals called practical knowledge or practical wisdom. What marks the difference between practical and theoretical knowledge and wisdom?  Well, traditionally the thought was that it is grounded in the distinction between theoretical and practical reasoning, which Aristotle differentiated in terms of distinctive ends or aims (their distinctive work or operation as modes of reasoning).  Theoretical reasoning, Aristotle argued, aims at an understanding of being or what is, and its measure is truth; such reasoning is finished (i.e., its work is done) when truth is grasped intellectually.  Theoretical wisdom, the perfection of theoretical reasoning, aims to know general and timeless truths about the highest or best objects of contemplation.  But practical knowledge, by contrast, aims at praxis, at realizing or making actual a good human life through deliberative choices of certain actions and activities; it aims to realize what is truly good in particulars, in human actions.  If we say that its measure is also truth, it must be truth of a special kind, one that somehow hooks up with realizing what is truly good.  It cannot be a truth that ends with an intellectual grasp of what is; rather, it would have to be a truth that is achieved in the living of a certain life, in a praxis.

It is worth noting, in this regard, that Aristotle thought one could possess theoretical but not practical wisdom—theoretical but not practical truth.  Suppose, for instance, that someone excels in math, physics, chemistry, biology, and general cosmology.  Such a person grasps the way things are ordered at the most basic and fundamental level, and he can apply these most general principles to explain much of what happens in the world.  Suppose he has devoted his life to this kind of knowledge.  Of course, this in no way guarantees or even tends to the cultivation of his moral virtue. Perhaps he is lascivious with women outside of the lab; perhaps he is willing to lie, steal, and cheat when it allows him more time and grant money to pursue his passion for science, perhaps he is a coward and incapable of helping others in need; and so on.  None of this necessarily impacts his ability to do great science; and, more importantly, nothing about doing great science inoculates him against developing a gross moral character.

It wouldn’t change anything, I suspect, if we added theology to the list of studies to which our imagined knower dedicated himself.  Being able to argue about the metaphysics of the Trinity does not necessarily make you a loving or good person either.  A mere change of topic won’t cut it.  For the same reason, one might even be a great moral theorist and have a bad moral character; that is, one might have theoretical knowledge about practical subject matters but not the practical dispositions that lead to making good decisions and living well.

This goes back, once again, to the different inherent teleologies or inherent aims of the two different kinds of reasoning.  Practical reasoning is not practical in virtue of having a special kind of content; it is not ordinary theoretical thought and inference suddenly turned to the topic of human good. Practical reasoning is practical because it aims to realize some good or end that the agent desires—most especially the desire to live well or to flourish.  Such reasoning depends on the agent wanting to realize some end or objective or good; thus desire for some good is essential to practical reasoning, it is the arche or starting point of such reasoning.  This explains why Aristotle defines practical truth as “truth in accordance with right desire.”

Now, if practical knowledge and reasoning essentially aims at action, and if such thought depends for its teleology upon a certain appetitive orientation, then it can only be successful when the agent brings about the goods in question through the use of this very thought and reasoning.  So it is somewhat misleading to say that the practically wise man knows how to live, because again, he may know this as a theory rather than as a praxis.  To come to know the praxis would require a different kind of training that the one the moral theorist typically receives.  What we might strictly speaking say of the practically wise man, if he is really practically wise, is that he knows he is living well, not simply that he knows how to live well, generally speaking.  For the knowledge is operative in the practically wise and is the explanation of what he does—of his choices and actions.  The manifestation of the knowledge is primarily in what he does rather than what he says.

Thus it seems to me that there is a difference between a theoretical conception of living well, which the moral theorist might possess, and a practical conception of living well, which only the practically wise possess. It also strikes me that the good or happy life is one that displays a kind of truth about human nature and human beings—a truth about what our good is.  But again, this is a distinctively practical kind of truth that is displayed in living well, not simply in the possession of correct general propositions or principles.  One sees practical wisdom and practical truth principally or paradigmatically in action, as it were, not standing behind it.

In contemporary virtue ethics, there is almost no discussion of practical truth.  But if the line of reasoning I have outlined is roughly correct, virtue ethics needs an account of a distinctively practical notion of truth just as much as it needs a distinctively practical account of knowledge and wisdom.  The point of the workshop (and eventually, the collected volume of papers) is to begin to advance such an account in light of our understanding of the Aristotelian tradition, broadly construed to include Aquinas and the work of Elizabeth Anscombe.

April 21-22: Join us online for these Keynotes for the workshop Practical Truth: Reflections on the Aristotelian Tradition


Join us online for these Keynotes of Practical Truth: Reflections on the Aristotelian Tradition:

Anselm Mueller, Trier University | University of South Carolina
4:30 pm EST, April 21, 2017

Stephen Brock, Holy Cross University | University of South Carolina
4:00 pm EST April 22, 2017
For more information about this workshop including the speaker list, schedule, and to live-stream the keynotes, visit

Live streaming from UofSC April 21-22: Stephen Brock and Anselm Mueller

If you’re not able to attend, join us online April 21-22 for each of the two keynotes of the workshop “Practical Truth: Reflections on the Aristotelian Tradition”. We’ll be live streaming the two keynotes from the University of South Carolina at

brock_1Stephen Brock, Holy Cross University – “Thomas Aquinas, the Bearer of Practical Truth, and the Rationality of Action”

Interpreters of what Aristotle calls practical truth differ about what its bearer is or what it is properly said of.  As a result, they also differ about the distinction between practical and theoretical truth.  It is generally agreed that the bearer of theoretical truth is an assertion or a judgment about some matter, and that such truth consists in the judgment’s describing the matter correctly.  But while some hold that the same account applies to practical truth, others hold that its bearer is an action, and that what it consists in is the action’s conformity with right desire.  Thomas Aquinas thinks the bearer of practical truth is a judgment.  In this paper I present his position, consider some objections on behalf of the opposing view, and suggest what he would think is at stake the issue.

Stephen Brock’s keynote will be April 21 at 4:30 pm eastern time.

11Muellerevent_20160411_2364Anselm Mueller, Trier University – “Is Practical Truth a Chimera? Questions for Anscombe”

In a number of papers, Anscombe raises the “great question”: What is practical truth (PT)? Her answers are not elaborate but clear enough to raise further questions such as: Does PT have truth-conditions? What can be rendered practically true, and by what? – What Anscombe calls PT appears to be secured by actions’ being implemented in conclusion of a valid practical inference in which you derive a way of acting from good ends. But whose truth can be thus secured? If it is practical thought, its PT will require two seemingly separable conditions: goodness of ends, and implementation of the practical conclusion. This would deprive the notion of PT of the unity Anscombe’s explorations insinuate. If, on the other hand, PT is exhibit by actions, how can it also be produced by implementation of practical thought (= action!)? – A solution to the problems I have hinted at is suggested by consideration of the fundamental teleology of human nature.

Anselm Mueller’s keynote will be April 22 at 4:00 pm eastern time.


[CFA] Virtue, Skill and Practical Reason

University of Cape Town. Photo from

We’re happy to post this call for abstracts from one of our Summer Session 2016 participants, philosopher Tom Angier.

Virtue, Skill and Practical Reason


Keynote Speakers:

Prof. Julia Annas (University of Arizona)

Prof. Michael Thompson (University of Pittsburgh)

Prof. Rachel Barney (University of Toronto)


Aristotle drew an analogy between the acquisition of virtue and the acquisition of various skills such as archery and playing the lute. Since that time there has been substantial debate on how seriously one should take that analogy. In Intelligent Virtue (2011) Julia Annas has made a powerful case for taking that analogy very seriously, whereas others are more cautious.


This conference aims to bring together philosophers working in the virtue tradition, in particular those working in ancient and moral philosophy, to discuss the complex relationships between skill and virtue. There appears to be a consensus that the acquisition of virtue is part of the broader acquisition of practical reasonableness, but there the consensus ends.


High quality abstracts are invited in any area of virtue theory, including but not limited to virtue ethics and virtue epistemology. Papers can have a historical focus, or they can be organised thematically. Papers from a non-Western perspective are welcome.


The conference will be held from Friday 25th to Sunday 27th August 2017 at the spectacular University of Cape Town, and there will be ample opportunities for sight-seeing.


Invited speakers


Profs Sergio Tenenbaum and James Allen (University of Toronto), Sarah Stroud (University of McGill), John Hacker-Wright (University of Guelph).



Please email an abstract of between 300 and 500 words, to by Friday 31st March 2017.

Additional information

You will have 30/40 minutes for the paper presentation followed by a 30/20 minutes discussion. We regret we cannot cover expenses for accepted speakers. We are planning a published volume containing selected papers from the conference.



Dr Tom Angier (University of Cape Town) and Dr Richard Hamilton (University of Notre Dame, Australia).

For further information, please contact:




Lumen Christi Institute Events – Winter 2017

Founded in 1997 by Catholic Scholars at the University of Chicago, The Lumen Christi Institute brings together thoughtful Catholics and others interested in the Catholic tradition and makes available to them the wisdom of the Catholic spiritual, intellectual, and cultural heritage. Lumen Christi is a partner with our project and we’re pleased to share their  upcoming events for Spring 2017.

Thursday, February 16, 4:30pm-6:00pm

with Sarah Byers (Boston College)
“What does it Mean to Say the Son of God is ‘Consubstantial’ with the Father? New Insights into Augustine’s Debt to Aristotle” 

Harper Memorial Library 130: 1116 East 59th Street
Cosponsored by the Department of Philosophy 
Register here.

Friday, February 17, 2:00pm-5:00pm
with Sarah Byers (Boston College)

Master Class: Augustine on Human Freedom and Divine Grace: What is Really Going on in the ‘Conversion Scene’ in Augustine’s Confessions?”

Gavin House: 1220 E 58th Street, Chicago, IL 60637
Open to graduate and undergraduate students, including non-University of Chicago students. Space is limited and offered on a first-come, first-served basis. Copies of the readings will be made available online to all participants. 
Register here.
Thursday, February 23, 4:30-6:00pm
Lecture by Celia Deane-Drummond (Notre Dame) 
Social Sciences, Room 122: 1126 E 59th Street, Chicago, IL 60637
Register here.

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

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.