The Place of Virtue in a Meaningful Life

Solitude

Call both one’s efforts at being a good person and the ways of thinking, feeling, and responding to circumstances that develop while one works to be a good person ‘virtue.’ Let a ‘meaningful’ life be a life imbued with a sense of purpose or significance—a life that is full, engaging, and engaged, where the fullness comes of something more than mere subjective interest and enthusiasm.  It can seem as though virtue and meaning have very little to do with each other. Whatever sort of struggle might be involved in working to be a good human being can seem like something personal—an individual quest to have a beautiful character or a shining soul. Having a meaningful life, on the other hand, looks like the sort of thing that will require that I go beyond the business of working toward having a lovely soul and into a larger world where I try to find things that are genuinely worth pursuing, and devote myself to their pursuit. In this talk, I will work to bring the two together, partly by urging a different account of virtue, partly by developing a slightly more articulate account of meaning in human life, and always by drawing on work by Thomas Aquinas.

Learning to be Good

It may be that talk about virtue has never been common in ordinary life. It may be that the only common talk about virtue in North America happened a long time ago and was primarily concerned with women and their sexual habits, where ‘virtue’ was a matter of chastity. But in the latter part of the 20th century, Anglophone philosophers started talking about virtue again, and we now confront a wide variety of different kinds of talk about virtue in both moral philosophy and areas of empirical social science directed to exploration of moral psychology and moral education. By most of these lights, a specific virtue is a character trait that tends to make its bearer a better person than she would be without it, and the sorts of virtues that are topics of inquiry are acquired virtues—virtues that develop through training and practice. There are accounts of virtue that find their philosophical ancestor in the 18th century Scottish philosopher, David Hume. There are accounts of virtue that draw extensively from the work of Roman thinkers like Cicero. There are accounts of virtue rooted in work by the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle. The theorist of virtue I have found most useful is a scholastic neo-Aristotelian—Thomas Aquinas.

For Aquinas, there are four cardinal virtues—practical wisdom, justice, temperance, and courage. We need all four. Michael Pakaluk puts the point this way:

A virtue is a trait that…makes someone such that his activity—what he does, what he is responsible for—is reasonable. But there are four basic types of such activity: his thinking itself, as practical and directed at action; his actions ordinarily so-called…; and how he is affected. This last category splits into two, Aquinas thinks, on the grounds that acting reasonably in the realm of the passions involves regulating both the passions by which we are drawn to something and the passions by which we are repulsed from something. These two sorts of passions imply two sorts of tasks or achievements…which the ordinary distinction between the virtues of temperance and courage confirms (ST I-2.61.2 resp.).

I am happy to go into detail about the work of the virtues with you in discussion, if you like. For now, the point is just that the virtues foster coordination and cooperation among our various powers in such a way that we can pursue human good, and avoid what is bad for us, smoothly and well. And for Aquinas, even a fully virtuous person is likely to make mistakes in trying to act well.

Secondary virtues—generosity, for instance, or humility, or gratitude or kindness—work to strengthen and support the operation of cardinal virtues. Cultivating virtues is part of sound moral development. And sound moral development is crucial to human life, on this view. Unlike nonhuman animals, humans need more than just a combination of good fortune, instinct and training to lead good lives. We need developed characters.

Some contemporary neo-Aristotelians (and some more venerable theorists) think that acquired virtue is all that we need to lead a good human life. They think that living virtuously is enough to make us happy, and that, since virtue is its own reward, living virtuously ought to be enough to make our lives full and meaningful as well. For those who think that virtue is all that we need, what virtue does, for the most part, is make each of us a stronger and better person. This will give the virtuous person a measure of resilience when things do not go her way. It will help guide her when exercising virtue looks to put her at a tremendous disadvantage—as it will, for instance, if she called upon to deliver truthful testimony in court condemning a mob boss, or if she is called upon to care for an infirm parent who is demanding, ungrateful, and generally unkind, or if being mindful of the needs of her children and spouse requires turning down a very shiny job offer in a distant place. Virtuous activity can put the virtuous person at risk of death, misery, or serious personal disappointment. And, in general, one would have to be appallingly lacking in imagination to be incapable of thinking of anything more exciting to do than pay debts, help those in need, or work hard not to lie, cheat, abandon others, or steal when bad acts offer big rewards.

Aquinas knows that virtuous action can put the virtuous person at a disadvantage, as far as worldly success is concerned. He does not think that having developed a good character will, all on its own, make everything go well for the virtuous person. But his understanding of virtue has two features that are uncommon in other accounts of virtue, both of which give virtue a proper place in a meaningful life.

First, any specific virtue is directed to the common good, for Aquinas. Although he shares the general Aristotelian conviction that my virtues, if I have any, are good for me, the benefit that I get from my own good character is not the most interesting thing about my virtues for Aquinas. What my virtues do is direct me to good larger than just my own welfare and the welfare of those in my inner circle. Although what Aquinas means by saying that virtue is directed to common good, in the first instance, is not exactly what a contemporary Anglophone philosopher would generally mean by invoking common good, Aquinas’s understanding is not opposed to what we would mean either. It is just that the common good of interest to Aquinas operates on a cosmic scale. One could, for example, develop an interesting form of environmental ethics by meditating on Aquinas’s thought about common good. The commonality at issue reaches out toward the whole of creation.  The human community is, of course, part of creation.

Second, and relatedly, Aquinas does not think that happiness and a sense of meaning in this life are the highest objects of aspiration for us. The highest object of aspiration is eternal happiness in a resurrected life. We cannot get that for ourselves without God’s help, but, in a strong sense, it is what we are made for, and virtue in this life supports us in our efforts to be right with ourselves, right with our fellow creatures, and right with God.

So much for a very quick introduction to virtue.  What place do our efforts at moral self-improvement have in meaningful lives?

Meaning in Human Life

Questions about what makes life meaningful are relatively new questions in European philosophy. It looks as though the topic started to rise up explicitly for European thinkers in the wake of what was called “The Great War,” and again, with different urgency, in the wake of their Second World War, partly in response to the utter destructiveness of these ventures and pointedly in response to the way that neighbors turned on neighbors during efforts to annihilate Jewish people, gypsies, people with leftist political views, homosexual people, disabled people, and, in a different way, Slavic peoples, and to enslave many other peoples by the axis powers. In mainstream English-language philosophy, the topic did not get much currency until late in the twentieth century, and is only beginning to have spark more interest now. Part of the reason that mainstream Anglophone philosophers are reluctant to wade into questions about meaning in life is that there is no single, clear, precise characterization of what counts as meaning in this area.

There are desiderata—conditions that any adequate account of meaning in human life ought to meet if the view is to be a view about the sort of thing that despairing people find elusive and people leading significant or meaningful lives have. Anglophone philosophers being the kinds of intellectuals that they are, every one of the points I am about to list as reasonable starting points for thought about what makes life meaningful has been contested by at least one of the people taking up the question in the last thirty years. I will, for all that, move forward boldly rather than allowing us to be caught in the details of the disputations. Again, I am happy to trace the disputations for any of them if you like.  Here are what I take to be reasonable starting points for thought about what makes life meaningful:

  1. Meaning in human life is not merely a matter of subjective satisfaction with how things are going—people with tremendous hardship and burden can be leading tremendously meaningful lives even when they do not expect that their efforts in any of their areas of activity will succeed.
  2. Meaning in human life has an important objective dimension—I can take it that my life has not been worth living and be wrong (one can think of this as one aspect of an ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ principle); by the same token, I can take it that my life is filled with meaning and be wrong.
  3. Related to (1) and (2), to whatever extent assessments of happiness in life are importantly subjective, happiness is distinct from meaningfulness.
  4. Whatever kinds of activities, relationships, ways of living, or experiences contribute to meaning in human life, meaningful lives are better than meaningless lives—that is, ‘meaning’ is not a purely descriptive term in this setting.
  5. Related to (4), there is an important distinction between meaning in life and moral status (however moral status is assessed)—full lives, empty lives, and lives that are neither especially full nor especially empty have moral status.

There are various ways to carve the territory of recent Anglophone philosophical work on the meaning of life. One clear line of distinction demarcates naturalist views from supernaturalist views.

Supernaturalist views hold that our relations to, and participation in a spiritual order is crucial to having a meaningful life. Such views, notice, might be true even if there is no such thing as the variety of spiritual order postulated by the relevant supernaturalist theorist of meaning. If there is no such order, then our lives are not lives that can be meaningful, by these lights. Some supernaturalist views are distinctively theistic—ordinarily, these are monotheistic views focused on our relation to God.  Other supernaturalist views find a spiritual order in the natural world, sometimes linked to pantheistic or polytheistic understandings of that order. These latter varieties of supernaturalism have not been explored extensively in the Anglophone philosophical literature. The philosophers have stuck with monotheism, for the most part. There tend to be three important dimensions to monotheistic supernaturalist views about the meaning of life:

  1. Metaphysical dimension: God’s existence is necessary to ground meaningful lives because an infinite, essentially good, almighty creator and legislator God anchors objective value generally, and the objective value of human life as part of this.
  2. Relational dimension: A meaningful life is informed by sound (if necessarily incomplete) understanding of God and involved in practical engagements that bring individual human beings into right relations with God.
  3. Ethical dimension: It is not possible to be in right relations with God unless one is also in right relations with others.

Naturalist views, on the other hand, hold that there is no supernatural, distinctively spiritual order, but that this is no hindrance to thinking about what makes life meaningful.  On such views, I could find meaning in life through pursuit of truth or justice, or by understanding my life as made possible by the struggles of people who came before me, hoping to carry good forward to those who will come after me.

This is the territory in which contemporary Anglophone philosophical exploration about questions of the meaning of life hangs out. Within each of the categories, there are many divergent views, and, by most philosophers’ lights, no one strand of thought on the topic is entirely fully developed at this point. There is, however, a common thread that runs through all the work, as near as I can tell, a thread that takes some of its coloring from the usual ways of distinguishing questions about meaning from questions about happiness. It goes like this—in virtually all contemporary work (except work committed to thoroughly subjectivist naturalism), meaningful lives are meaningful in part because those leading meaningful lives operate with an understanding of their lives as participating in a good larger than their own welfare or advantage and the welfare or advantage of those they regard as members of their intimate circle. What sort of “larger” is involved in this larger good? Thaddeus Metz offers the following proposal:

[T]he concept of meaning is the idea of connecting with intrinsic value beyond one’s animal self. The animal self is constituted by those capacities that we share with (lower) animals, i.e., those not exercising reason. These include the fact of being alive, the instantiation of a healthy body, and the experience of pleasures. These internal conditions may well be intrinsically valuable, but they do not seem to be the sorts of intrinsic value with which one must connect to acquire significance. To say that the concept of meaning is the idea of relating positively to intrinsic value beyond one’s animal self is to say that while merely staying alive or feeling pleasure logically cannot make one’s life meaningful, connecting with internal goods involving the use of reason, and with all sorts of external goods, can do so [“The Concept of a Meaningful Life,” in Joshua W. Seachris, editor, Exploring the Meaning of Life, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), p. 88].

Perhaps more than any other Anglophone analytic philosopher working on questions about the meaning of life, Metz is immersed in the whole of the relevant contemporary literature. He covers the waterfront better than anyone else.  And he is acutely aware of the points at which his treatment of the concept departs from some recent analytic work on the topic. For all that, one can complain about various features of Metz’s account of the concept of meaning from a Thomist point of view. Here are a few of them.

First, Metz’s way of distinguishing what we share with non-human animals from our distinctively human capacities diverges from Aquinas’s metaphysics of human nature. For Aquinas, we are the animals with intellect. Intellect is not the same was what contemporary philosophers mean by ‘reason.’ In an early work, Aquinas remarks on aspects of nonhuman animal apprehension and appetite that have something of reason in them:

It should be noted…that not only in the apprehensive powers but also in the appetitive there is something which belongs to the sensitive soul in accordance with its own nature and something else according as it has some slight participation in reason, coming into contact at its highest level of activity with reason at its lowest….  Thus the imaginative power belongs to the sensitive soul in accordance with its own nature, because forms received from sense are stored up in it, but the estimative power, by which an animal apprehends intentions not received by the senses, such as friendship or hostility, is in the sensitive soul according as it shares somewhat in reason….  The same principle is verified also in regard to the appetitive power.  The fact that an animal seeks what is pleasurable to its senses (the business of the concupiscible power) is in accordance with the sensitive soul’s own nature; but that it should leave what is pleasurable and seek something for the sake of a victory which it wins with pain (the business of the irascible), this belongs to it according as it in some measure reaches up to the higher appetite [Disputed Questions on Truth, q. 25, a.2].

It is hard to separate the most complex operations of nonhuman animal apprehension and appetite from their simplest human counterparts. For all that, intellect sets humans apart from other animals on this view, and, among intellectual creatures, humans are further distinguished by having discursive reason—we are, as Aristotle might put it—the chatty animals. This is, for Aquinas, part of the way in which we are animals.

Second, not just any intrinsically valuable, discursively assessable goods will count as goods to which we can connect in a way that confers meaning on our lives. Active participation in a thriving human community, for example, will only count as lending significance and meaning to one’s life if that community is, itself, ordered to justice and guided by due concern for the common good. If we had to find a slot for Aquinas in the contemporary philosophical taxonomy, he will count as a supernaturalist for whom the metaphysical, relational, and ethical dimensions are all intertwined.

Finally, concern about virtue is kept at a distance in Metz’s treatment of meaning. If we wanted to ask Aquinas to speak to questions about meaning in human life, virtue would have a secure, central place in our discussion.

 

Putting Virtue in its Place—A Thomist Picture

How will a friend of Aquinas handle a question about the place of virtue in a meaningful life?

First off, a friend of Aquinas, if I understand those of us who are friends of Aquinas, will urge that a properly virtuous life will, insofar as it is virtuous, be a meaningful life. It may not be a happy life, on any ordinary understanding of happiness. I can be as wise, just, brave, and temperate as you please but face ethical circumstances so challenging and hostile that my good character makes me a target for abuse rather than an esteemed person. In this sense, a Thomist account will square with the first and third of the starting points for an account of meaning.

Second, the fact that even a person with a full complement of acquired virtues—a strong character—can make mistakes and will occasionally have good reason to regret her decisions and her actions squares with the objectivity constraint on claims to meaning in human life. I might throw myself into a cause, for example, after careful consideration and in good conscience only to find that the thing I fought for was not worth fighting for.

Third, because acquired virtue on Aquinas’s understanding is perfective of my nature as a human being, virtuous lives are better than vicious lives in a sense isomorphic with the sense in which meaningful lives are better than meaningless lives.

Perhaps most importantly, because acquired virtues are directed to common good in the first instance for Aquinas, a genuinely virtuous life will, by necessity, involve the right kinds of relations with intrinsically valuable internal and external goods to meet the kind of criterion for meaning sketched by Metz (echoing dominant trends in contemporary Anglophone philosophical work on the topic).

In this sense, pulling Aquinas into conversation with contemporary Anglophone philosophers on questions about meaningful lives gives through about virtue a central role in thought about meaning.

 


Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and Principal Investigator for Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life. Vogler gave this talk at Valparaiso University as part of their programming on the theme of the pan-humanities seminar taken by every freshman, and the theme this fall is “human meaning and purpose.” She was hosted by the Department of Philosophy at Valparaiso University. 

 

 

 

 

Candace Vogler to speak on the place of virtue in a meaningful life, at Valparaiso University September 15

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Candace Vogler will give a talk September 15 at Valparaiso University as part of their programming on the theme of the pan-humanities seminar taken by every freshman, and the theme this fall is “human meaning and purpose.” She will be hosted by the Department of Philosophy at Valparaiso University.

The Place of Virtue in a Meaningful Life

Call both one’s efforts at being a good person and the ways of thinking, feeling, and responding to circumstances that develop while one works to be a good person ‘virtue.’  Let a ‘meaningful’ life be a life imbued with a sense of purpose or significance—a life that is full, engaging, and engaged, where the fulness comes of something more than mere subjective interest and enthusiasm.  It can seem as though virtue and meaning have very little to do with each other.  Whatever sort of struggle might be involved in working to be a good human being can seem like something personal—an individual quest to have a beautiful character or a shining soul.  Having a meaningful life, on the other hand, looks like the sort of thing that will require that I go beyond the business of working toward having a lovely soul and into a larger world where I try to find things that are genuinely worth pursuing, and devote myself to their pursuit.  In this talk, I will work to bring the two together, partly by urging a different account of virtue, partly by developing a slightly more articulate account of meaning in human life, and always by drawing on work by Thomas Aquinas.

 

Frankl’s Self-Transcendence Model and Virtue Ethics – Part 1 of 2

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Paul T.P. Wong is Professor Emeritus, Trent University, and a scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.  Timothy Reilly is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Developing Virtues in the Practice of Science Project at the University of Notre Dame, and was a participant in our 2017 Summer Seminar, Virtue, Happiness, and Self-Transcendence.

This post is part 1 of a 2-part series.

Introduction

The main thesis in this presentation is that Viktor Frankl’s self-transcendence (ST) model provides a useful ethical framework for living and behaving well. We also argue that his model is consistent with the Aristotelian and Thomistic moral theory of virtue ethics in important ways (Hursthouse & Pettigrove, 2016).

Virtue is an important topic for psychology, philosophy, and business management because it is concerned with moral excellence and ethical behaviours that are crucial for the well-being and flourishing of individuals and communities. The real challenge for any moral theory is whether it has the practical value of helping people live as ethical, decent human beings in daily concrete situations.

Frankl’s ST model is very practical, because it was developed and tested in wrestling with the ethical challenges of how to be a decent human being under two extremely difficult conditions in real life. The first challenge had to do with suffering—how to live with a sense of human dignity and significance even when one was facing unimaginable degradation, atrocities, and a cruel death. The second challenge had to do with power—how to prevent anyone in a position of power from its corrupting influence and becoming a monster like Hitler.

Summary of Previous Presentations

At the first Virtue Scholars meeting, I presented the meaning hypothesis of living a good life (Wong, 2015a), based on my interpretation of Frankl’s concept of meaning-seeking (Wong, 2014) and his ST model (Wong, 2016a). More specifically, the meaning hypothesis posits that our primary motivational need of seeking meaning (i.e., the will to meaning) and the meaning-mindset of finding meaning (i.e., meaning of life) constitute the motivational and cognitive factors of ST. My focus was on the importance of the perspective of the meaning-mindset.

My second presentation elaborated on the meaning hypothesis by explaining how the striving towards some goals of ST is a promising pathway to live a good life of virtue, happiness, and meaning (Wong, 2016b). My focus was on the motivational aspect of seeking meaning. After reviewing various conceptions and models of ST, I concluded that Frankl’s two-factor model of ST (cognitive and motivational factors) represents the most comprehensive ST model for research and intervention.

At the December 2017 Virtue Scholars working group meeting, I sketched the various components of Frankl’s ST model and their inter-relationships as shown in Figure 1. I also introduced the four defining characteristics of ST as measured by the Self-Transcendence Measure (STM) (Wong, 2016c). I proposed that these four dimensions could differentiate the virtuous type of genuine ST from the evil type of pseudo-ST because of their inherent moral orientation (Wong, 2017).

In this present paper, the focus is on the basic tenets of Frankl’s ST model and their moral implications for living a virtuous life. We attempt to integrate Frankl’s work with moral philosophy.

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Figure 1. Frankl’s two-factor theory and characteristics of self-transcendence.

Basic Assumptions of Frankl’s Self-Transcendence Model and Virtue Ethics

Frankl’s answer to the two ethical challenges identified in the introduction is fourfold: (1) the defiant power of the human spirit; (2) the capacity for freedom and responsibility; (3) the primary motivation for ST; and (4) the power of the meaning-mindset.

Defiant Power of the Human Spirit

Viktor Frankl (1985) described the defiant power of the human spirit as the freedom to take a courageous stance towards fate and the human capacity to transform a tragedy into a triumph. He defined courage in terms of the noetic or spiritual dimension; thus, moral courage had a spiritual origin.

Recently, Wong (2015b) interpreted the defiant power as the moral courage to maintain one’s cherished values and human dignity in the face of suffering and death; this courage is the key to true grit in surviving constant and unimaginable assaults on one’s physical and psychological integrity.

Without such moral fortitude in the face of danger, we would not be able to have the character strength to preserve and realize the moral values that make us decent human beings. This is essentially an existential courage that enables us to take a defiant stand against a harsh fate and do what is morally right despite personal dangers.

Frankl’s view of courage is consistent with both the classic and Catholic conceptions of courage as a virtue. Plato (1894/2000) considers courage as one of the four cardinal values. Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics, 3.6-9) defines courage as have the right “amount” of fear (“the mean”); thus, a courageous person still fears things that all human beings are afraid of, yet has the courage to face these fears as one should for some good and worthy goal, such as facing death in a battle to protect one’s country. Thomas Aquinas considers fortitude or courage primarily in terms of endurance with firmness. He says, “The principal act of courage is to endure and withstand dangers doggedly rather than to attack” (Summa Theologica, IIb, 123.8). Courage is expressed when an individual is pursuing a difficult or dangerous goal that is sufficiently valuable to be worth the difficulty or danger.

In sum, having moral courage is a prerequisite for doing the right thing or making the right choice. It is easy to do what is expedient, but it takes courage to do what is right. It is an easy way out to compromise or surrender in the face of great danger, but it takes great courage to stand up for one’s core values and beliefs. Thus, moral fortitude is just the starting point; there are additional conditions one must fulfill in order to be a fully functioning decent human being.

Capacity for Freedom and Responsibility

“Freedom of will” figures prominently in Frankl’s ST model. His model hinges on the responsible use of freedom in all situations. In Man’s Search for Meaning (Frankl, 1985), he declares:

Man is not fully conditioned and determined but rather he determines himself whether he give in to conditions or stands up to them. In other words, man is self-determining. Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment. By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant. (p. 154)

Every person has the freedom and responsibility to choose their own pathway and life goals. Their choices determine their character, well-being, and destiny, even when we factor in fate or luck. Every situation presents us with the choice between good and evil, between acting on the bright side or the dark side of our nature; we can choose between spiritual joy and carnal pleasures, between practicing kindness and abusing our powers.

Shantall’s (2004) research on Holocaust survivors supports Frankl’s thesis on moral responsibility. Here are some important lessons from Holocaust survivors:

Their active efforts to maintain moral values in the face of the onslaught against them, made their lives take on greater spiritual content and meaning. Living with a profound value-directedness and moral responsibility, they experienced a sense of true destiny (something or someone to live or survive for) with peak moments of triumph and even joy. (p. 3)

The human capacity for freedom of will allows us to deliberate and choose between good and evil, between desires and values. Our awareness of the moral implications of our choices makes us morally responsible for our decisions and actions. Aquinas attributes this freedom to our rational or volitional abilities. Even though our nature may predispose us to certain ends, we have the freedom to choose between the ends, as well as the pathway to achieve a certain end. Aquinas conception of freedom, however, does not entail that all choices are equal, but rather a teleological notion of freedom- the more free one is the more able one is to pursue the good (Titus & Moncher, 2009). Another way to phrase this is that the virtuous individual is free to be just, and so to fulfill their obligations and responsibilities, choosing the proper actions for the proper reasons (Titus, 2016).

Frankl’s ST model represents an agent-centered moral theory which emphasizes the human being as a moral agent (Harris, 1999; Slote, 2001). For Slote (2001), a virtuous life depends on both a particular agent’s inner dispositions and actual motives. Therefore, the virtuous kind of ST needs to stem from a good inner disposition and a good motive.

Frankl’s model recognizes human beings as both moral and instrumental agents. It is consistent with the psychological literature of self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000) and self-efficacy theory (Bandura, 1977), which are predicated on the human capacity for freedom and responsibility. In moral psychology, research on moral identity (Colby & Damon, 1992) and moral education (Bebeau, Rest, & Narvaez, 1999) emphasizes that individuals whose moral goals and values are central to their self-concept feel responsible for acting in consistently moral ways.

Tomorrow in Part II, we will discuss the Motivation of Searching for Self-Transcendence.

The Good Life Through Polarity and Transcendence – part 1

Sacred Hues

In his encyclopedic book exploring the mysteries of science and philosophy, Guy Murchie (1978) identifies polarity and transcendence as the two great mysteries of all life systems.

Murchie’s profound insight is essential to our research and understanding of virtue, happiness, and meaning—the three constituents of the good life. Contrary to the predominant binary thinking of only pursuing what is positive, Guy supports the dialectical approach of second wave positive psychology (PP 2.0). That is, we need to accept the principle of polarity that permeates every aspect of human existence—good and evil, God and the devil, happiness and sadness, life and death…

Transcendence is also necessary because it integrates the opposites and moves towards greater connectiveness and higher consciousness. In terms of evolution, it is the inevitable process of moving from single-celled organisms towards more complex living systems, and from simple ideas such as “positive is good; negative is bad” towards more complex concepts like yin-yang.

Thus, the deep secret of the good life is to accept and transcend polarities. From the perspective of PP 2.0, acceptance and transcendence are the essential yin-yang processes. Acceptance represents the yin process of enduring and embracing life in its totality, with letting go and humility; transcendence represents the yang process of growth and self-expanding to the point of losing oneself in something greater and grander.

The Polarity Principle

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Murchie draws heavily from Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 535-c. 475 BCE). Heraclitus is best known for his doctrines that things are constantly changing (universal flux) and that opposites coexist (unity of opposites). “The way up and the way down are one and the same… It is sickness that makes health pleasant… And evil leads to good.” (Murchie, 1978, p. 472).

Evidence of the polarity principle is everywhere—positive-negative, subject-object, predator-prey, action-reaction, stress-relaxation… However, there is an underlying harmony and unity below the surface reality of opposites, as symbolized by yin-yang. Awareness and acceptance of the sameness of opposites result in transcendence.

This polarity principle sheds a new light on our understanding of positive psychology. Happiness is no longer the presence of positive affect and the absence of negative affect, but the acceptance of the inevitable polarity of feelings, and being attuned to the ebb and flow of emotions with a sense of contentment (Kwee, 2012; Wong, 2014a).

Maturation means the acceptance of inevitable losses that come with aging (Reker & Wong, 2012; Ryff, 2012) and personal mortality (Wong, Reker, & Gesser, 1994). Furthermore, virtue is no longer the absence of vice, but the triumph of virtue in spite of the reality of the dark side (Wong, 2016).

Similarly, meaning in life takes shape through the endless process of transforming and assimilating absurd and meaningless moments into a larger meaningful design. This process of personal growth is made possible only through the constant struggle and stretching to overcome challenges and obstacles (Wong, 2011).

The end result of accepting the polarity principle is that we are more likely to develop the practical wisdom of moderation or the “middle way” and less likely to develop radical beliefs and the polarized mind (Schneider, 2013). It will also contribute to what Jung saw as the individualization process of balancing and integrating all the opposites within one’s self-system (Wong, 2009).

Such dialectic thinking opens up many new frontiers for research and applications. For instance, gratitude exercises are no longer limited to the good things that have happened to us; we are challenged to express gratitude for the bad things as well, because of the valuable lessons and benefits that come from suffering. This type of spiritual gratitude exercise may be more helpful to those suffering from trauma. The Psalms are full of examples of a voice beginning with complaints and ending with thanksgiving.

In sum, the best way to increase the well-being of individuals and organizations is to accept and transcend the pervasive polarities of life such as success-failure, happiness-sadness, and virtue-vice. This perspective is similar to the medical practice of assuming that we live in a world full of bacteria, viruses, and illnesses that we can acclimate ourselves to and survive. Thus, positive psychology is no longer a refocus away from disease to well-being, but a broader focus on the reality of polarities.

Tomorrow – part 2, The Transcendence Principle


References

Aron, A., & Aron, E. N. (2012). The meaning of love. In P. T. P. Wong (Ed.), The human quest for meaning: Theories, research, and applications (2nd ed.; pp. 185-208). New York, NY: Routledge.

Emmons, R. A. (1999). The psychology of ultimate concerns: Motivation and spirituality in personality. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Frankl, V. E. (1985). Man’s search for meaning (Revised & updated ed.). New York, NY: Washington Square Press.

Haidt, J. D. (2012). Religion, evolution, and the ecstasy of self-transcendence. TED. Retrieved from www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_humanity_s_stairway_to_self_transcendence?language=en

Kwee, M. G. T. (2012). Relational Buddhism: A psychological quest for meaning and sustainable happiness. In P. T. P. Wong (Ed.), The human quest for meaning: Theories, research, and applications (2nd ed.; pp. 249-276). New York, NY: Routledge.

Murchie, G. (1978). The seven mysteries of life: An exploration of science and philosophy. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.

Reker, G. T., & Wong, P. T. P. (2012). Personal meaning in life and psychosocial adaptation in the later years. In P. T. P. Wong (Ed.), The human quest for meaning: Theories, research, and applications (2nd ed., pp. 433-456). New York, NY: Routledge.

Ryff, C. D. (2012). Existential well-being and health. In P. T. P. Wong (Ed.), The human quest for meaning: Theories, research, and applications (2nd ed., pp. 233-248). New York, NY: Routledge.

Schneider, K. J. (2013). The polarized mind: Why it’s killing us and what we can do about it. Colorado Springs, CO: University Professors Press.

Wong, P. T. P. (2009). The depth positive psychology of Carl Jung. In S. J. Lopez (Ed.), Encyclopedia of positive psychology (Vol. 1, pp. 545-546). Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Wong, P. T. P. (2011). Positive psychology 2.0: Towards a balanced interactive model of the good life. Canadian Psychology, 52(2), 69-81.

Wong, P. T. P. (2012). What is the meaning mindset? International Journal of Existential Psychology and Psychotherapy, 4(1), 1-3.

Wong, P. T. P. (2014a). From attunement to a meaning-centred good life: Book review of Daniel Haybron’s Happiness: A very short introductionInternational Journal of Wellbeing, 4(2), 100-105.

Wong, P. T. P. (2014b). Viktor Frankl’s meaning seeking model and positive psychology. In A. Batthyany & P. Russo-Netzer (Eds.), Meaning in existential and positive psychology (pp. 149-184)New York, NY: Springer.

Wong, P. T. P. (2016, July). PP2.0 Summit explores the new vistas of second wave positive psychology: How to embrace the dark side to make life better. Positive Living Newsletter. Retrieved from http://www.drpaulwong.com/inpm-presidents-report-july-2016/

Wong, P. T. P., Reker, G. T., & Gesser, G. (1994). Death Attitude Profile – Revised: A multidimensional measure of attitudes toward death (DAP-R). In R. A. Neimeyer (Ed.), Death anxiety handbook: Research, instrumentation, and application (pp. 121-148). Washington, DC: Taylor & Francis.


Paul Wong is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Trent University and a Scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Virtue Talk Podcast: Michael Gorman on Listening to Others and Finding Meaning

virtuetalklogorsClick the link below to hear our scholar and philosopher Michael Gorman discuss his research in human fulfillment, and how his thinking about scholarship and research has been impacted in surprising ways by our collaborative project.

Michael Gorman | Virtue Talk

Micahel Gorman is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America. Read more about him and other other scholars here.

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Michael Gorman discussing meaning as PI Jennifer A. Frey listens, at our June 2016 working group meeting.

 

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Self-transcendence the missing link in research on virtue, happiness, and meaning in human life?

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To the sky – photo by Chris Smith

The hypotheses we are investigating center on the thought that self-transcendence supplies a missing link in work on virtue, happiness, and meaning in human life. All three of those terms—virtue, happiness, meaning—can be interpreted in more than one way, but those three are showing up in broad, educated popular culture these days. Self-transcendence, on the other hand, is not. So what is self-transcendence and why do we think that it is important to research on developing the kinds of strengths that help one to be a good person (virtue), thriving, growing, and flourishing in the course of working to lead a good life (happiness), and having a sense of purpose in doing what you do (meaning)?

Some aspects of self-transcendence are familiar—in discussions of egoism versus altruism, altruism stands as the term marking putting concern for others ahead of concern for self. Altruism can be an aspect of self-transcendence. But there are many ways of putting others’ needs ahead of one’s own, and some ways of doing this have more to do with self-aggrandizement or self-defense than self-transcendence. For example, if I use “service” to others as a way of showing that I am a better person than you are, I am trying to use so-called “service” to make myself big rather than get over my fixation on myself. If I am endlessly helpful and obsequious because I have been beaten down by the world, or am afraid that others will beat me down if I try to stand up for myself, I am not transcending my self—I am trying to find a way of defending myself.

As we understand the term, self-transcendence shows itself when I live my life and understand my life as essentially connected to a good beyond my own comfort, the security and comfort of my friends and immediate family, the goods of personal achievement, success, self-expression, and the like. My life is lived through participation in a good that goes beyond personal achievement, expression, security and comfort, beyond even the need to promote those goods for members of my intimate circle. I work on behalf of bettering the community in ways that will help strangers, say. I engage in spiritual practices that are not just designed to make me calmer or more effective in my daily life, but allow me to participate in a spiritual community organized by the need to be right with one another and to show due reverence for the sacred—community practice directed to a good beyond the borders of the self-identified community. I devote myself to social justice. I devote myself to participation in a community seeking truth, goodness, or beauty. In ways small or large, what I do, and how I do it, what I notice and how I respond, what I think and say and what I do not think and do not say, are guided by my relation to something bigger and better than I am. I have a self-transcendent orientation to the living of my daily life. My own life is a part of some good crucial to good life more generally, as best I can understand, serve, and embody that larger good.

The passages above are not offered as a comprehensive, ultimate definition of self-transcendence. The sketch of self-transcendence I’ve given serves as a starting point for our collaboration. One of the aims of our research is to develop rigorous and more thoroughly articulated understandings of self-transcendence that can guide and direct ongoing research in our different disciplines.

Our hypothesis is that the larger good is what can imbue my daily life with a sense of meaning and purpose, and that the strengths that belong to virtue are strengths that help me to direct myself to the larger good in thought, feeling, and practice. If there is a special happiness that comes of the effort to be a good person and lead a good life—a deep happiness, that can sustain us through the inevitable struggles and trials of our lives—that happiness comes of a life lived through a self-transcendent orientation. We are investigating this hypothesis through our diverse research modalities, in the hope that developing a broad, multifaceted account of self-transcendence in its relation to virtue, happiness, and meaning will help people generally begin to assess and address those aspects of their lives that can make the stuff of living look more like a giant ‘to-do’ list than a real source of vitality, purpose, resilience, and joy.


Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and Principal Investigator for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.