What Good is Happiness? A Dialogue Between Economics and Philosophy


Thanks to  The Veritas Forum and The Lumen Christi Institute (among others), I participated in a dialogue with Professor Jonathan Masur about the nature of happiness.  Professor Masur is a subjectivist about happiness and (unsurprisingly) I strongly disagree!

Pints with Aquinas Episode

On New Year’s Day, Pints with Aquinas, a podcast that seeks to explain the thought of Thomas Aquinas to non-specialists, featured an episode on happiness; it is a conversation between me and the podcast’s hilariously self-deprecating and generous host, Matt Fradd.  The episode is titled “How to be happy” but its not about that (no one can tell you how to be happy–virtue is not a technique,  and philosophy isn’t self-help).  I’m posting a link to it here; I hope you enjoy our conversation!

Side note:

Whenever I do a podcast, I always think  about what I wish I had said as opposed to what I actually said.  In this episode,  for instance, Matt asked me why I don’t like Jordan Peterson’s writings.  I wish to say a little bit more in response here than I offered Matt during our conversation.  I didn’t want to derail our episode, but at the same time, I want to be on record about why male interest in Jordan Peterson bothers me.

First and foremost, I don’t follow Jordan Peterson and I have not read his book.  I do not consider this a failure on my part.  I am a finite being with limited resources, and I have to be prudent  about what I decide to read, especially since I read very carefully and in a time consuming way.  Jordan Peterson is famous not because he has brilliant ideas–from what I can gather, his book promotes many pedestrian, time worn platitudes about us, in addition to some fairly shallow readings of great books–but because he is an admitted, radicalized culture warrior.  I am allergic to our toxic culture wars,  as they drag down discourse rather than elevate it.  Culture warriors have practical (typically political) ends and reality gets dragged around to meet these ends on both sides; I have no time for that.  I don’t need to engage yet another voice opposed to finding common ground together.  I want to search for common ground, and if I didn’t believe that was possible I would sooner give up on discourse rather than further destroy it.

But I went further and said I don’t like his work, and that is what needs to be explained.   Jordan Peterson says  some unserious (indeed, laughable) but also dangerous things about women, and frankly, whatever sensible, true  things  he says about our culture is outweighed by his toxic attitudes about women.  For instance, that the feminine is deeply associated with chaos whereas order and reason is masculine, and to treat it any other way would be “transhuman” or denying reality.  For instance:

“You know you can say, ‘Well isn’t it unfortunate that chaos is represented by the feminine’ — well, it might be unfortunate, but it doesn’t matter because that is how it’s represented. It’s been represented like that forever. And there are reasons for it. You can’t change it. It’s not possible. This is underneath everything. If you change those basic categories, people wouldn’t be human anymore. They’d be something else. They’d be transhuman or something. We wouldn’t be able to talk to these new creatures.”

Or, if that wasn’t weird enough, here’s something JP tweeted in 2016:

“Women, if you usurp men they will rebel and fail you and you will have to either jail or enslave them.”

Um, OK.

And please note that his “Twelve Rules for Life” is an antidote to chaos–an antidote to the feminine. I think I know enough already about what he is on about, and I’m not interested in what he’s selling.  If you are interested–if this vision of women appeals to you and rings true to your experience–I’m concerned about you.

Having said this, I certainly don’t want to silence Jordan Peterson, even though I think this vision of the feminine is dangerously false.  I will  raise daughters to be proud of their feminine genius insofar as they have cultivated it. But when men ask me point blank, as Matt did, why I don’t like him, as if he’s obviously great, I hope the answer is now clear:  I don’t have time for misogyny masquerading as eternal verities.  Life is too short, and I’d rather be reading wise women like Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Donna Tartt, Edith Stein, Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil, Marilynne Robinson, Eleonore Stump, or any of the incredibly amazing contemporary women philosophers and theologians I am so blessed to work with and learn from.









Veritas Forum Podcast



You’ll notice that our blog has a new look. This was not exactly intentional (the blog has fully transitioned over to me, after disappearing for a few days on account of my technical incompetence), and certainly doesn’t dazzle,  but I suspect no one comes here for the look of it anyway. Also, it might change again!

I am off to Switzerland now for a conference in honor of an intellectual hero of mine, and to record another episode of Sacred & Profane Love (this time on Donna Tartt’s absolutely spellbinding novel, The Secret History, with the ever brilliant, Fr. Michael Sherwin, O.P.). I hope to get back to a regular schedule of releasing new episodes after an especially unforgiving October lecture schedule.

In the meantime, I have another podcast episode to share.  I recorded this episode of The Veritas Forum podcast, titled, “Happiness is Not Self-help” last April, just before my Veritas Forum event at Yale University with Dr. Laurie Santos. While at Yale, I was a guest in Laurie’s very famous class on happiness, and we had a public debate about whether virtues are “life hacks” (answer from me: no, they most certainly are not “life hacks”). I’m teaching a graduate level course on happiness right now, and my experience at Yale comes up quite a bit.  At some point I hope to blog about what Laurie and I could (and definitely could not) agree about happiness and the good life.  But for now, this podcast relates some of my basic thoughts and concerns about her approach.

Gilead’s Visionary Realism

Aristotle opens up his Metaphysics with a simple but arresting observation:

“All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight.  For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not doing anything, we prefer seeing to everything else.”

For readers unfamiliar with his corpus, Aristotle’s Metaphysics is his great work on sophia or philosophical wisdom.  For Aristotle, metaphysics is the science of being qua being.  The wise person doesn’t simply see reality, her vision includes a grasp of its essential structure, its fundamental principles and causes.   The wise person knows where to direct her vision and attention; she knows how to occupy her mind well, so as to find joy in the truth. For Aristotle, only contemplation of God can perfect or complete our most fundamental tendencies as a rational person.

All of this raises an obvious question: In a treatise on universal knowledge of causes, why does Aristotle privilege the senses, and vision in particular?  Why does he emphasize the delight we take in seeing and beholding?

I want to turn to Marilyn Robinson’s stunningly beautiful Pulitzer prize winning novel, Gilead, to try to get a better grip on this Aristotelian idea .  I read Robinson’s novel as a testament to the joy of contemplation: of seeing the wonder of existence.

The main protagonist, the Reverend John Ames, is a man who models the life of contemplation, a man who understands well that certain moments, which he calls visions, are occasions for the kind of contemplation in which true happiness consists.

John Ames is a taciturn congregationalist minister in a small and inconsequential town in the plains of Iowa. The novel takes place sometime in the 1950’s, and at that point Reverend Ames is an old man (seventy six) dying from heart disease, who has a young son (about seven) and a young wife (perhaps she is in her late twenties).  Reverend Ames’s voice is the sole narrator of events, but there is no linear progression or even a story that he tells us.  We come to know him as the author of letters to his young son, letters that make up the entirety of the novel.  He is writing these letters in the hope that he can share what small measure of wisdom he has managed to attain in his long life, and in so doing, reveal himself to his son, who otherwise would barely know him at all.

The letters, while often about nothing of obvious importance, are achingly beautiful.  We learn from them that Reverand Ames is a writer; he tells us that his attic is full of boxes that contain every sermon he has ever preached to his congregation.  It is through writing that he has tried to understand the human person, God, creation, and of course, himself.  As he describes his prolific life work to his son (warning him that it is surely useless), he remarks:

“I write in a small hand,too, as you know by now.  Say three hundred pages make a volume.  Then I’ve written two hundred twenty five books, which puts me up there with Augustine and Calvin for quantity.  That’s amazing.  I wrote almost all of it in the deepest hope and conviction.  Sifting through my thoughts and choosing my words.  Trying to say what was true.  And I’ll tell you frankly, that was wonderful.”

From his letters we see that Ames is a serious man, one who is striving to live in accordance with what he believes is true.  We also learn that Ames is grateful for his wife and his son, for his vocation as a preacher, for his quiet life, and for existence itself. But most of all what one sees in John Ames is a man who knows how to pay attention, and who is able to see a glimpse of eternal truths in quiet, ordinary moments.  Of such a moment, he writes:

“There’s a shimmer on a child’s hair in the sunlight.  There are rainbow colors in it, tiny, soft beams of just the same colors you can see in the dew sometimes. They’re in the petals of flowers, and they’re on a child’s skin.  Your hair is straight and dark, and your skin is fair. I suppose you’re not prettier than most children.  You’re just a nice-looking boy, a bit slight, well scrubbed and well mannered. All that is fine, but it’s your existence I love you for, mainly.  Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined.” (53)

For Ames, writing to his son and to his congregation is a labor of love. Ames sees an essential link between writing and praying.  He confesses to his son that,

“writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers, as I was often enough.  You feel that you are with someone. I feel I am with you now, whatever than can mean, considering that you’re only a little fellow now and when you’re a man you might find these letters of no interest. Or they might never reach you, for any number of reasons.  Well, but how deeply I regret any sadness you have suffered and how grateful I am in anticipation of any good you have enjoyed.  That is to say, I pray for you.  And there’s an intimacy in it, that’s the truth.” (19)

The link that Ames draws between the intimacy of writing and praying is the link between our love and our attention.  We pay attention to what we love, and that is why we must love the right things in order to occupy our minds well.  It is because Ames loves his son that he is able to meditate on the shimmer in his hair in the sunlight and see the beauty of his existence in it.  It is because Ames desires to know and love God that he studies theology, preaches, and prays, and through this work his vision of ordinary, everyday life is transfigured into the work of grace.  For Ames, ordinary moments become occasions for deep contemplative joy.  The novel is replete with examples of these visionary moments, such as the following scene he encounters on the way to Church:

“There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me.  The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet.  On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something out of a myth.  I don’t know why I thought of that just now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables and doing the wash. I wish I had paid more attention to it. My list of regrets may seem unusual, but who can know that they are, really?  This is an interesting planet.  It deserves all the attention you can give it.” (28)

Ames wants his son to know how to pay attention, to cultivate a contemplative vision of the world around him.  He speaks of “the visionary aspect of any particular day” that might reveal its meaning over time, through contemplation of it.  Ames tells his son not to lose these moments, that he may understand his whole life and even existence itself in them, if he makes an effort to see what relationship our present reality has to an ultimate reality. And we should make an effort, as “it is waste and ingratitude not to honor such things as visions, whether you yourself happen to have seen them or not.” (97)

For Reverend Ames, his contemplative vision of the world is a foretaste of the beatified vision of God that he hopes awaits him at his death. But that does not detract from the wonder and joy of this life, which he clearly savors and wishes to impart to his son:

“I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us.  In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.” (57)

John Ames wants to teach his son to behold the world, to celebrate it, and to be grateful for it.  To return to it in memory and to try to find the meaning and beauty of our experience of it.  In short, he wants him to love and embrace the world, to see why it commands our attention.

Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and host of a philosophy podcast titled, Sacred and Profane Love.



Podcast: “Sophocles and Tragic Love” | Sacred and Profane Love, Episode 8

Theatre of Dionysus.
Photo: Flickr, NMares

Download Episode 8:
Sophocles and Tragic Love

In episode 8 of Sacred & Profane Love, Jennifer Frey speaks with Dhananjay Jagannathan about Greek tragedy and the fragility of human loves and happiness, with a special focus on Sophocles’ play, The Women of Trachis.

Dhananjay Jagannathan is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University.   He mainly works in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and the history of ethics, but he is also interested in contemporary virtue ethics, political philosophy, and topics at the intersection of philosophy and literature. He is writing a book on Aristotle’s practical epistemology, which was also the topic of his doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago.

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.


Preview on iTunes

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

This podcast is a project of Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life, and is made possible through a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

Content copyright the University of South Carolina and the University of Chicago.

Music credits, “Help me Somebody,” by Brian Eno and David Byrne, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.5.

Empathy and Self-Transcendence

“Empathy” | Photo by Sarah Barker.

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



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


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


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


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


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


Tomorrow, June 6: Empathy and Shifting Perspectives

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