We’re delighted to share the list of participants for our 2017 Summer Seminar, “Virtue, Happiness, and Self-Transcendence“, who hail from all corners of the globe and will convene at the University of Chicago for a week this June. These young researchers will participate in intensive workshop sessions with our faculty to deepen their own research through conversations with a network of fellow collaborators in the areas of Philosophy, Psychology, and Theology/Religious Studies.
The accepted participants for the 2017 Summer Seminar, “Virtue, Happiness, & Self-Transcendence” are:
Alberto Arruda, University of Lisbon
Samuel Baker, University of South Alabama
Maureen Bielinski, University of St. Thomas, TX
Sarah Bixler, Princeton Theological Seminary
Andrew Christy, Texas A&M University
Ellen Dulaney, DePaul University
Marta Faria, Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome
Andrew Flynn, University of California – Los Angeles
Madison Gilbertson, Fuller Graduate School of Psychology
Craig Iffland, University of Notre Dame
Anne Jeffrey, University of South Alabama
Jane Klinger, University of Waterloo
David McPherson, Creighton University
Samantha Mendez, University of the Philippines- Diliman
Elise Murray, Tufts University
Omowumi Ogunyemi, Institute of humanities of the Pan-Atlantic University, Lagos
Cabrini Pak, The Catholic University of America
Carissa Phillips-Garrett, Rice University
Timothy Reilly, University of Notre Dame
James Dominic Rooney, Saint Louis University
Jennifer Rothschild, University of Florida
Theresa Smart, University of Notre Dame
Joseph Stenberg, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
Sanaz Talaifar, University of Texas at Austin
Andrea Yetzer, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs
This two-day workshop aims to close the gap between empirical and philosophical approaches to questions of happiness, virtue, and the meaning of life, in the interest of encouraging the development of an empirically informed philosophy and a science with philosophical awareness. Organizers: Erik Angner and Mats Ingelström.
Keynotes by Jennifer A. Frey (University of South Carolina) and Candace Vogler (University of Chicago).
Presentations by Anna Alexandrova (Cambridge University), Michael Bishop (Florida State
University), Dale Dorsey (University of Kansas), Kirsten Egerstrom (Southern Methodist University), Kaisa Kärki (University of Jyväskylä), Antti Kauppinen (University of Tampere), Jennifer Lockhart (Auburn University), Jason Raibley (California State University), Raffaele Rodogno (Aarhus University), Joshua Lewis Thomas (University of Sheffield), Willem van der Deijl (Erasmus University ) and Sam Wren-Lewis (Leeds University).
FREE ADMISSION Time and place: Friday and Saturday 5–6 of May, in the William-Olsson lecture hall (Geovetenskapens hus).
Boethius presents us with a picture of happiness in which it is entirely a matter of choice and personal responsibility whether one attains it. If we are unhappy, it is a product of our own culpable ignorance—a failure to know ourselves, and thus a failure to take the means necessary to secure our ultimate, highest end.
I am inclined to think this is far too dismissive of human frailty and interdependence, and of our need to love and be loved by one another. One finds little talk of love in Boethius, or friendship. But how can we understand human happiness without putting love and friendship front and center of our account?
I disagree with Boethius that virtue is entirely within our control, since the cultivation of it depends on others, and is therefore not inoculated against good fortune. Virtue does not rise spontaneously in us, it requires training from those who possess it themselves. But not everyone in life is fortunate enough to be surrounded by virtuous and wise parents, teachers, or friends. Can we expect those born in unfortunate conditions, such as extreme poverty or broken and abusive homes, to come to the wisdom that Philosophy represents? And even if we come to possess it, wisdom itself is fragile. Iris Murdoch was wise in many respects, but during the last years of her life her rational capacities were slowly destroyed by Alzheimer’s disease.
Second, we may think that part of what it is to be wise is not only to recognize but accept and even embrace the fragility of human goodness. Setting aside the question whether Boethius was right to believe in eternal life and man’s potential participation in it, it seems that genuine self-knowledge includes both the recognition and embrace of our own radical vulnerability and dependence upon others. It is a fact about us that even the best things we can hope to attain for ourselves in this life—a loving family, meaningful friendships, knowledge and wisdom, etc—we may lose against our will. This inherent fragility does not denigrate these goods or our pursuit of them, but rather, reveals an important truth about human beings: we need to rely on others, and radically so. Human love grows in a space of mutual dependence and trust, and it depends on our recognition of our inherent exposure to evil and misfortune. Our happiness is not, as Philosophy insists, totally up to us. We need to be able to turn to others, to expose ourselves and share the burdens of the human condition. This is true for religious persons just as much as their secular counterparts.
Boethius is right, however, to stress that while we cannot control what happens to us, we can control how we react to it. A wise person will know that suffering through life’s inevitable misfortunes and disappointments is the fate of us all, and that part of living well is possessing the ability to suffer well—to face our brokenness with a measure of fortitude. It is also true that some of us will have to suffer far more than others, and that some of this does come down to luck. Boethius is further correct to say that if we have cultivated the virtues, we will be better equipped to bear our burdens with a measure of grace. But virtue alone is not enough—we do need the love, support, and companionship of intimates and neighbors. Boethius was wrong, I think, to focus so much on “self-sufficiency.” None of us is self-sufficient, and it’s a mistake to strive to be.
Boethius, alone in his prison cell, certainly had no friends to turn to. But perhaps Boethius looked upon Aristotle, Plato and others as friends—guides to help him navigate his fallen state. Wisdom is reached in a manner that is mediated by tradition, and we may find in great works of art, literature, and philosophy a similar expansion of the self through others that can console us in our darkest hours. Philosophy too is a kind of friend and constant companion.
Finally, Boethius’s work can help us to see that there is something true in what Kant says about the good will. If we are extremely unlucky in life, we may accept our fate and yet not give in to total despair. If nothing else, a good person can rest in the knowledge that she could not have managed better for herself. While it may not be a perfectly happy death, it is a far cry the despairing thought that one’s life was a pointless waste.
Kant was wrong, however, to insist that the inevitability of luck shows that the pursuit of happiness is suspect, for he was wrong to insist that all that matters is the cultivation of a good will. It is not wrong to want to be happy and to direct one’s efforts towards this goal. But we must do so in a way that is clear eyed about what we are: vulnerable and dependent creatures, in need of giving and receiving love. All of us, like Boethius, stand more or less insecure. The key to happiness, then, is probably not to search for what is ultimately up to us—nothing seems to fit this description—but to seek, as best we can, and with the acknowledged help of others, to become the kind of person who loves rightly, and is thereby easy to love in return.
Everyone strives for happiness in life, but you don’t have to be especially perceptive to notice that not everyone reaches the goal. How much of this failure is one’s own fault? After all, we humans are vulnerable creatures, all more or less at the mercy of fortune. Talent, beauty, intelligence, health, social privilege, a loving and secure family—these gifts are distributed unequally among us, and we may lose them against our wills. This raises the question: How much of human happiness is a matter of good fortune or gift, and how much of it is under a person’s voluntary control? Even the word happiness carries with it connotations of what is bestowed rather than earned (etymologically, it’s root is ‘hap,’ which means good luck; in fact, in most European languages, the word for happiness originally had the same reference to good fortune rather what has been merited through wise choices).
Contemporary virtue ethicists often argue that the purpose of life is happiness, and that if you hope to reach it, you ought to cultivate a good character. But then what should we say to the man who cultivates virtue but to whom happiness is ultimately denied? Do we simply acknowledge that there is an element of luck in anything a human pursues, including the highest good? Must we admit that some among us are tragic figures, fated to a sorry end despite all hard fought efforts to change it?
Furthermore, if real tragedy is possible, then perhaps it is wrong to insist that happiness is the goal of life; perhaps instead, as Immanuel Kant argues, we should simply strive to be moral, without thinking this is in the service of anything else. In his influential Metaphysics of Morals, Kant claims the following about a good will:
“Even if by some particular disfavor of fate, or by the scanty endowment of a stepmotherly nature, this will should entirely lack the capacity to carry through its purpose; if despite its greatest striving it should still accomplish nothing, and only the good will were to remain…then, like a jewel, it would still shine by itself, as something that has full worth in itself”.”
The role of fortune in human life and its impact on happiness is the central theme of one of the most influential literary texts of the Middle Ages, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. For Boethius (475-526), the questions surrounding fate and fortune were not merely academic but existential; a philosopher-statesman in the mold that Plato first outlined, Boethius finds himself unjustly accused of treason and sentenced to an untimely and cruel death. While imprisoned, without his library, his health, his friends or family, Boethius composes a deeply moving meditation on wisdom and happiness.
The book opens with a lament upon his own pitiful condition, which will set up a sharp contrast between Boethius and Lady Philosophy. Boethius describes himself in a state of physical decline and despair; with “untimely white upon his head,” he describes himself as a “worn out bone bag hung with flesh.” He yearns for the release of death, but complains that death’s ears are “deaf to hopeless cries” and death’s hands refuse “to close poor weeping eyes.” Reflecting upon his earlier life, he writes:
Foolish the friends who called me happy then
For falling shows a man stood insecure.
While he is busy feeling sorry for himself, Lady Philosophy—wisdom personified—appears to him. She is noted for her keen, burning eyes, a sign that she is able to see reality clearly. She, unlike Boethius, is healthy, calm and unperturbed, of regal mien and dress. She carries books in one arm (a symbol of her knowledge) and a scepter in the other (a symbol of her power to order and rule life in accordance with it). Philosophy is described as a physician who has come to diagnose and heal Boethius; she tells him he suffers from a “sickness of mind”—an amnesia, since he has forgotten what he once knew. This amnesia has been brought about not by his change of fortune, but his inordinate focus on his current plight, which stirs up in him vehement passions of grief, sadness, and anger. Philosophy is there to help him recover knowledge of himself and his true nature. This knowledge, she tells him, will be his ultimate consolation and cure.
Philosophy uses rational argument to heal her patient. She begins by arguing that the loss of good fortune is no genuine loss. Fortune, she complains, flatters people and entices them with a false sense of happiness. The happiness that good fortune grants is unreliable and insecure, as change is the very essence of fortune. Boethius depicts Fortune as a lady gleefully and carelessly spinning a wheel that determines man’s fate. When it is her turn to speak to Boethius, she warns him:
It is the game I never cease to play as I turn my wheel in its ever changing circle, filled with joy as I bring the top to the bottom and the bottom to the top. Yes, rise up on my wheel if you like, but don’t count it an injury when by the same token you begin to fall, as the rules of the game will require.
Fortune controls worldly goods: wealth, honors, power, fame, and pleasures. Philosophy points out that none of these goods is ever wholly stable or secure. Thus, if a man sets his heart upon any of them he is bound to wind up anxious in his ongoing struggle to maintain them.
Real happiness, by contrast, cannot be lost to a man who possesses it. Such a good is “self-sufficient” in that it lacks nothing and leaves nothing more to be desired once possessed. A man who is truly happy is perfectly sated—he does not thirst or want for more. Eventually, Philosophy comes to argue that the only candidate for such a complete and perfect good is God, and that the only way to participate in this good is to cultivate virtue. This is meant to console Boethius, since the cultivation of virtue is the one thing she insists is under his complete control.
We’re presenting a short series of abstracts of the work-in-progress our scholars will present and discuss at their June 2017 Working Group Meeting.
Reinhard Hütter is Professor of Christian Theology at The Catholic University of America and Duke University.
In my last paper I argued that any robust philosophical, let one, theological account of happiness and self-transcendence presupposes an account of finality or teleology. I advanced the case that without an antecedent understanding of the specific nature and the distinct finality of the human person, it is rather futile to gain clarity about the nature of authentic happiness, of genuine self-transcendence and last, but not least, about the question of a perfect continuous state of ek-static bliss, surpassingly fulfilled self-transcendence, or, what the Catholic tradition calls, the beatific vision. Hidden disagreements on this fundamental metaphysical level (human beings are not persons but at best super-primates; they do not have rational souls, but the mind is an epiphenomenon of neurological processes; the universe is bereft of finality, because there does not exist a transcendent First Cause and Final End, usually called God) give rise to notions of happiness that are not only philosophically underdetermined but mutually exclusive, if not simply equivocal. I held that one important step toward a clarification of these matters is a straightforward description of a particular, comprehensive account of finality, self-transcendence, and happiness, an account that lays bare its philosophical and theological first principles.
In this paper I take another step by addressing one of the most daunting contemporary obstacles to a rigorous and comprehensive inquiry into the nature of happiness, self-transcendence, and the meaning of life—the late modern research university and its self-imposed limitation to the empirically falsifiable supported by a tacit but tenacious commitment to what can be variously described as the immanent frame, secularism, instrumentalism, and the privileging of the quantifiable and computable as the proper object of what is a “true” science. It is unavoidable that inquiries that transcend this self-imposed limitation of reason, because of their allegedly non-scientific character, are banned from the public space of university discourse and relegated to the realm of the subjective, to the private space of individual curiosity. Or such inquiries must be transformed in such a way that they fit the immanentist and empiricist framework. Certain disciplines (the sad and interiorly disarrayed remnant of the “humanities”) that engage in such inquiries may exist on the margins of the university as historically descriptive, textually interpretive, and conceptually analytic enterprises that may contribute, next to rigorous disciplines like mathematics and cybernetics, to a soft but still in some ways not completely useless propaedeutic to the real work of science. This reality is challenged by an understanding of the university as an institution that essentially engages the whole breadth of reason and does not deny its grandeur in any shape or form. It is in such a university, I suggest, where inquiries into happiness, virtue, and the meaning of life stand at the very center of what a university is about. It is John Henry Newman who articulates the idea of such a university with a still unsurpassed clarity and force.
Our second summer seminar, “Virtue, Happiness, and Self-transcendence” is June 18 – 23, 2017 at the University of Chicago and features renown teachers in philosophy, psychology, and religious studies.
Our Seminar is intended for outstanding middle- and advanced-level graduate students and early career researchers in the areas of Philosophy, Psychology, and Theology/Religious Studies. Our aim is to involve participants in our innovative and collaborative research framework within these three fields, and to provide an engaged environment to deepen and enliven their own research.
Fr. Stephen L. Brockis Professor of Medieval Philosophy, Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome. He earned a B.A. in Philosophy at the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. 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).
Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and principal investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life. Prior to joining the philosophy faculty at UofSC, 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. 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.
Dan P. McAdams is the Henry Wade Rogers Professor of Psychology and Professor of Human Development and Social Policy at Northwestern University. A personality and life-span developmental psychologist, Professor McAdams has explored the role of life narrative in human development, and how themes of agency, redemption, and generativity shape American biography, politics, society, and culture. He is the author most recently of The Art and Science of Personality Development (Guilford Press, 2015) and The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By (Oxford University Press, 2006/2013).
Candace Vogleris the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and a principal investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life. 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), and essays in ethics, social and political philosophy, philosophy and literature, cinema, psychoanalysis, gender studies, sexuality studies, and other areas. 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.
For more information on the seminar, the sessions, and to apply, click here.
Peggy Binette: How can the humanities contribute to happiness and meaningfulness in life – regardless of socioeconomic position?
Talbot Brewer: There is at best a tenuous connection between the humanities and happiness. Serious engagement with literature and art does of course have its pleasures, and we professors would be falling down on the job if our students did not come to know these pleasures. But If you went to a production of, say, Shakespeare’s Othello in hopes of making yourself happier, you’d be making a serious mistake. Seeing Othello can be, and indeed ought to be, a crushing experience. But while you probably would not walk out of the theater brimming with happiness, you might walk out with a deeper understanding of intimate love and the potentially deadly pathologies to which it exposes us. Whether such understanding makes life more meaningful is a complicated question. I think that it does. I would not wish to deny that someone who has never learned to read or write, and never learned to appreciate art, can have an extremely meaningful life, nor would I wish to rule out the possibility that someone with an advanced degree in philosophy or literature might lead a superficial existence. Still, I do think that when pursued in the right spirit, the humanities can deepen one’s experience of life, and that is an enormous gift.
PB: In this chaotic and ever-demanding world, how important is it for people to reflect on the concepts, virtues and values espoused in the humanities?
TB: We have devised a world in which mercenary words and images press upon us during almost every waking hour. When amid this clamor of manipulative messages we suddenly encounter something quite different, something called literature, or art, or philosophy, it is not easy to adjust our habits of attention and open ourselves fully to this newcomer. The cultural environment has not encouraged the traits required for proper engagement with the humanities: the habit of sustained attention and of patience and generosity in interpretation; the openness to finding camaraderie and illumination from others in the more treacherous passages of human life; the expressive conscience that cannot rest until it lights upon exactly the right words for one’s own incipient thoughts. By creating a space within which we can nurture such habits of mind and put them to their proper use, we make room for a kind of self-cultivation that has become increasingly rare, despite all the lip service we pay to authentic self-expression. PB: What is the one point or thought you want anyone who attends your talk to take away?
TB: Some have tried to ground the value of the humanities in their contribution to economic productivity. Others have tried to ground the value of the humanities in their contribution to the health of our democratic institutions. Neither approach seems to me very convincing. What drives so many friends of the humanities to these two options, I believe, is the thought that if the humanities do not boost the economy or strengthen the polity, then their value must be an entirely individual matter, hence not a genuine public concern. This way of framing the issue trades on a mistakenly atomistic conception of human culture. The attainment of a sophisticated level of articulacy about human life both depends upon, and contributes to, a background cultural sophistication about human life. When it comes to the contest between depth and superficiality, we are in it together. At a time when our metastasizing material productivity poses a serious threat to the future of human life on this planet, perhaps we would be well advised to put less emphasis on economic growth and more emphasis on this entirely sustainable shared pursuit, to which the humanities can make an important contribution.