Transcendence in Resilient American POWs: A Narrative Analysis

“Bringing up the Rear” Korean War Memorial in Washington, DC.  Photo by Charles Payne.
What is it about some American service members that enable them to bounce back from something like a POW experience, which may include daily conditions like filth, disease, starvation, torture, murder, and unscrupulous behavior among fellow prisoners and guards? Is it possible to transcend those experiences and make meaning of them in ways that allow one to heal and move on? How does one survive these stressors and manage to do things well, like get married, have a family, and live a productive life for decades after the traumatic experience? This study explores these questions.

Transcendence is an under-appreciated aspect of human experience with potentially significant positive contributions to the study of “spiritual fitness” and resilience in the military (Mullen, 2011), two factors attributed to successful navigation of the military life cycle. Transcendence, as a possible influencer of resilience, can be tracked in various forms, including narrative. I propose that resilient American service members who survived and bounced back from something like a POW experience, and wrote about it later, left traces of transcendence in their stories, which can be studied.

I also propose that transcendence is native to the human experience and can be conceptualized as an experiential meaning-making process, rather than an event or state of being. In my model of transcendence there are at least two possible outcomes. The first outcome, stabilization of one’s sense of self, enables the person to more firmly root him or herself in a response to the question, “What am I?” The second outcome, extraordinary connections within and beyond the self, in space-time, gives the person coordinates in moral space and allows the person to draw from those coordinates in future situations, particularly those that might be morally challenging. Eight memoirs of American POWs from two time periods were analyzed: World War II and the Vietnam War. The memoirs were selected based on public availability and known resilience of POW survivors (no known attempt to commit suicide within five years of discharge).

Anti-transcendence, an “anti-process” and a contrary to transcendence, is a necessary conceptualization because both transcendent and anti-transcendent events are found in the human condition. Although failure to make meaning of personally relevant transcendent events does not necessarily carry negative consequences, failure to make meaning of personally relevant anti-transcendent events does carry a downside risk of destabilizing one’s sense of self and fracturing or disintegrating connections within and beyond oneself. Anti-transcendence as a possible precursor to destabilization of one’s sense of self, fracturing or severing of deep ties within and beyond the self, and as a possible catalyst to something like anomy (a form of meaninglessness), has received virtually no attention in the literature, yet has the potential to contribute to a larger discussion around related issues like moral injury, depression associated with PTSD, identity crises, and suicidal ideation. The figure below is a partial representation of my model of transcendence and anti-transcendence.

The results of this study challenge existing notions of transcendence as an event or state of being, and offer evidence of an alternative, trackable, conceptualization of transcendence. The study also offers a method to track transcendence in written narrative form, and to detect instances of both transcendence and anti-transcendence, as well as their outcomes. The resilient American service members in this study all appear to have processed transcendent and anti-transcendent events in ways that yielded patterned results, whether in regard to one’s sense of self or to extraordinary connections within and beyond the self. Although resilience may not necessarily equal immunity to such symptoms as post-traumatic stress, transcendence and resilience together may be intertwined in ways that contribute to more robust coping or adaptive behavior, such as one of the memoirist’s decisions to tell his story and seek professional help for his PTSD symptoms after recognizing their persistence. The study of transcendence and its connection to resilience may also contribute to a broader concept of well-being, like the notions of human thriving or human flourishing.

A final word about transcendence: although this study is limited to the examination of transcendence at a personal level, there is also support for the notion that it can occur at a collective level. Peter Berger (1967) made three observations that are relevant to the idea that transcendence is a native dimension of the human experience, individually and collectively. First, world-building is a biological imperative for the human person: “The world-building of man is not a biologically extraneous phenomenon, but the direct consequence of man’s biological constitution.” Second, world-building by the individual man is never separated from society: “Man’s world-building activity is always a collective enterprise. Man’s internal appropriation of the world must also take place in a collectivity.” Third, in the process of world-building, “man, by his own activity, specializes his drives and provides stability for himself.” I point this out here to show that there may be much more to transcendence when compared between the individual and collective levels; the potentially therapeutic outcomes of stabilizing one’s sense of self and making extraordinary connections within and beyond the self may exhibit phenomenal effects if the process is adopted organizationally, with due care to maintain the integrity of a person’s religious, cultural, and ethnic senses of identity. If, in future studies, transcendence can be identified more strongly as a positive predictor of resilience, it may play a role as a therapeutic mechanism, individually and perhaps even on a more communal level.

[1] M.G. Mullen (Admiral, US Navy), “Chairman’s Total Force Fitness Framework,” CJCSI 3405.01, J-7 (1 September 2011).
[2] Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Anchor Books, 1967).

Cabrini Pak, PhD, recently earned her doctorate in Religion and Culture at The Catholic University of America and is on a two-year global assignment with the Oblates of the Virgin Mary. She was a participant in our 2017 Summer Seminar, Virtue, Happiness, and Self-Transcendence. This is an excerpt of her dissertation, which studies transcendence in resilient American service members in two major war periods. Her dissertation will be publicly available later this year. “Transcendence in Resilient American POWs: A Narrative Analysis”: A Dissertation by Cabrini Pak, Ph.D. Director: Dr. William Barbieri, Ph.D. 

Virtue, Flourishing, Culture and the Evolved Nest


We’re presenting a short series of abstracts of the work-in-progress our scholars presented and discussed at their June 2017 Working Group Meeting.

Darcia Narvaez is Professor of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame.

If we are going to discuss virtue and happiness, we must take into account the life world in which we exist. We must take into account the totality of flourishing. We must ask and find answers to who we are, where we are, where we have been and where we are going. The dominant culture that is decimating the earth relies on a reassuring narrative of human superiority, progress and future reward while denigrating humanity’s past and alternate, more sustainable cultures. The deep irrationality of the dominant cultural mindset represents a self-disinterest and is shaped by disrupted connection from birth which influences everything on the planet, fostering viciousness, dystopia and eco-disaster. The destruction and disconnection are rationalized with theories that claim there is no alternative path. How do we shift to a rational self-interest and to a sense of self that includes the entire biocommunity? We must shift both bottom-up practices and the top-down narratives we deploy.

Aquinas, self defense, and the new natural law

A statue of a woman holding the books of Thomas Aquinas
A statue of a woman holding the books of Thomas Aquinas.


The birth of the “new natural law theory”—whose two primary exponents are Germain Grisez and John Finnis—can be dated with some plausibility to 1965, the year in which Grisez’s article on the first principle of practical reason appeared in the journal then called Natural Law Forum. Over these fifty plus years, these two scholars have associated the theory with the thought of the Angelic Doctor with varying degrees of insistence. The article just mentioned calls itself a commentary on the relevant article in the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, and the first two—and most theoretical—volumes of Grisez’s now three-volume work The Way of the Lord Jesus both contain separate indexes to the works of St. Thomas, the first with over 650 entries. Finnis has published fairly recently a substantial volume entitled Aquinas: Moral, political, and legal theory, and the longest entry in the index of his more recent Collected Essays is dedicated to Aquinas. (Coming in at a close second is Aristotle, and this pair leave the rest of the field far behind.)


But, although certainly neither Grisez nor Finnis would ever reject out of hand a thesis proposed by Aquinas, they have both quite candidly declined to follow him in some important—even central—regards. Grisez, for instance, is critical of Thomas’s way of conceiving man’s ultimate end and Finnis maintains that “Aquinas’ efforts to follow Aristotle in classifying types of justice—its species, parts, and associated forms—yield no really clear and stable analytical pattern.”


Given, then, this situation, the present excerpt from a longer essay delivered at the Symposium Thomisticum in Paris, June 2016, does not address directly the question whether the new natural law theory as a whole is genuinely Thomistic: both Grisez and Finnis would be happy to acknowledge that, in certain regards, they depart from Thomas’s teaching. It considers rather specific interpretations of Thomas by Grisez and/or Finnis which the present author believes are mistaken. Showing that these interpretations are not consistent with Thomas’s thought is to present strong evidence that the new natural law theory ought not to be considered Thomistic. Here in this excerpt I briefly consider article 7 of question 64 of the secunda secundae, about “whether it is licit for someone to kill someone in self-defense.”


Aquinas, self defense, and the new natural law

(Part 1 of 2)

Summa Theologiae 2-2.64.7
ST 2-2.64.7 by is about whether it is licit for a person to kill another while defending himself. In his response, Thomas makes a basic distinction between personal self-defense and what we might call “public self-defense.” (Thomas mentions a “soldier fighting against foes” and “the minister of a judge fighting against a thief”). He says that personal self- defense, in which the agent’s intention is not to kill but to preserve his life, can be licit, although some acts of personal self-defense are illicit, as when the agent uses more violence than is appropriate to that same end. On the other hand, public self-defense can be licit even if intended, although even this type of self-defense is rendered illicit if the agent is motivated by personal animosity.


The use of ST 2-2.64.7 by the advocates of new natural law theory is problematic in a way different from the way their (and, especially, Grisez’s) use of ST 1-2.94.2 is. Grisez agrees with ST 1-2.94.2 or, at least, with that article as interpreted by him; but he and the others, although frequently citing ST 2-2.64.7, are less than enthusiastic about the second part of its corpus. The new natural law theorists understand the first part of the corpus as supporting their thesis that the basis of natural law is human goods, as opposed to precepts. Says Thomas at the beginning of the article:


Nothing prohibits there being two effects of a single act, only one of which is within the intention [in intentione], the other being beside the intention [praeter intentionem]. Moral acts, however, take their species with respect to what is intended, not from that which is beside the intention, since this is per accidens, as is made clear above.1 So, from the act of someone who defends himself there can follow a double effect: one, the conservation of one’s own life; the other, killing of the aggressor.

Our authors understand Thomas to be saying here, with them, that the moral character of acts is determined by what is intended, that is, by the proposal that the acting person adopts by choice. But they also think that that principle ought to be applied quite generally within ethics itself and so also to the types of acts mentioned later in that corpus, so that also public self-defense would be licit only if not intended. They say (in a co-authored article) that the “main issue in questions about the permissibility of using force” is whether an outcome “is intended—is part of the chosen (adopted) proposal—or rather is a side effect.”2 They then quote the beginning of ST 2-2.64.7c (translating in intentione as “intended” and praeter intentionem as “a side effect”), after which they remark:


But the point is in no way limited to questions of defense of self or others. Quite generally: “morally significant acts get their species [species] not from what happens as a side effect [praeter intentionem], but from precisely what it is that one intends [per se intentum].”


What they say here, however, about the species of acts and about intention is difficult to square with what Thomas argues in ST 2-2.64.7c. In particular, their interpretation of the first part of that corpus, from which interpretation emerge key theses of their theory, is mistaken.


The intent of what follows is to show that the basis of Thomas’s argument in ST 2- 2.64.7 is the precepts—or the laws which find their foundation in the precepts—of which he speaks in ST 1-2.94.2. It does indeed appear that, when Thomas says at the beginning of ST 2-2.64.7 that moral acts “take their species with respect to what is intended, not from that which is beside the intention,” he means that the moral character of any human act comes from what the agent of that act intends. In fact, however, he is not making a point about the moral analysis of individual acts but rather about the taxonomy of types of acts.

Statue of the Madonna, St. Dominic and Thomas Aquinas on Charles
Statue of the Madonna, St. Dominic and Thomas Aquinas on Charles bridge in Prague

In ST 2-2.109.2, Thomas asks whether truth is a “special virtue” [specialis virtus]. He does not understand the word ‘special’ as we do today in English: his question is whether truth (or telling the truth) can be distinguished from other virtues, as in biology the species ‘bird’ can be distinguished from the species ‘fish.’ One of the objections in ST 2-2.109.2 argues that “the truth of life is called that by which someone lives rightly” but that this does not pick out a particular species of virtue since one lives rightly by any virtue. Thomas responds that he is not speaking about anything so general as “living rightly” but about the particular virtue “according to which someone speaks the truth” [ST 2-2.109.2 ad 3]. This virtue would be distinct not only from living rightly (because more specific) but also, for instance, from the virtue of courage. As he says in the corpus, “whenever in a human act there is found a special type [ratio] of goodness, it is necessary that man be disposed towards this by a special virtue.”


The second objection in ST 2-2.109.2 argues that “an act of truth” is an act by which a man makes manifest what pertains to himself; but this is found in any virtue, “since the habit of any virtue is made manifest by one’s own act”; therefore, truth is not a special virtue. Thomas’s response is couched in language that interests us:


The habits of the virtues and the vices are organized according to species from that which is intended per se, not from that which is per accidens and beside the intention [praeter intentionem]. That, however, someone makes manifest that which pertains to himself does indeed pertain to the virtue of truth as intended per se, although it can pertain to the other virtues as a consequence: beside the principal intention. A courageous man, for instance, intends to act courageously; but that someone acting courageously makes manifest the courage he possesses: this follows as a consequence beside his principal intention.


Thomas is speaking here not about the moral analysis of particular acts; he is not, that is, saying that the moral character of any particular act comes from what the agent intends.


He is saying rather that types of acts—which might be either virtuous or vicious—are “organized” or “sorted” [sortiuntur] into species by looking to what is intended per se by a hypothetical agent. Thomas acknowledges in the immediately preceding article that someone might tell the truth about himself, thereby doing something that pertains to the virtue of truth, and yet that act might be immoral in so far as its moral character is determined by some other factor, such as telling this truth without due cause. Similarly, as Thomas says in ST 2-2.64.7, one’s act might fall into the species of personal self-defense (a species of good acts), but that act might be rendered evil “if it is not proportionate to the end,” for instance, “if someone in defending his own life uses more force than is called for.”


 This post will continue tomorrow, with Part 2 of 2, “On Truth and the Foundational Role of Precepts.”

Rev. Kevin Flannery , S.J., is Professor of the History of Ancient Philosophy, Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, and Scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Civility and Virtue


selinute antica civilt greca sito archeologico trapani sicilia
Selinute antica civiltà greca sito archeologico trapani sicilia.

Can self-transcendence make us more civil? Is incivility the inevitable product of a self-absorbed culture?


The name-calling, bullying innuendo, and rude speech that characterizes the political arena this election season have caused many journalists to question the effects of incivility on public political discourse generally and on children in particular. This may be because journalists see that many families are talking about the candidates with each other, some families are watching the debates together, and kids are overhearing adults discussing politicians and their actions. My own second-grader has come home from school on more than one occasion bursting with opinions about candidates from both parties. When I asked her where she got these ideas from, she told me that “all the kids” are talking about politics.


Perhaps the main reason why journalists are so interested right now in the effects of public adult incivility on children is because something about this televised incivility is causing grownups to feel guilty alarm about our own failure to model and teach civic virtue. It may seem like this alarm has come too late, and for the wrong reasons; many adults who might disagree with expressions of racism from a candidate but tolerate those expressions as free speech seem suddenly to have sprung into action only when that speech threatens to become sexually explicit. Yet—on a positive note—when parents, teachers, and others entrusted with modeling behavioral ideals increasingly feel compelled to distance themselves from the political candidates we are supposed to be teaching children and students to admire, we find ourselves critiquing not only the political system itself, but a culture that has celebrated aggressive self-promotion, boasting, and rudeness as competitive necessities.


A case in point comes from yesterday’s (March 10, 2016)  New York Times story by Sarah Lyall, “The Parent-Child Discussion That So Many Dread: Donald Trump.”  In it, one family watching television sends their 10-year-old out of the room when the topic in the GOP debate turns to the size of a candidate’s hands and genitals, leading to parental incredulity about the character of public political discourse. The crudity and bluster of the debates has led many teachers to preemptively address the issue of civility as a democratic virtue; in another instance in the same story, a sixth-grade teacher singles out individual candidates by name in order to talk with her students about the wrongness of making fun of people for the way they look. Most parents and teachers in the article stick to critiquing the candidates’ undesirable behavior in order to emphasize that rudeness anywhere is unacceptable, but some adults also find it useful to look at this bad behavior as the inevitable product of a self-obsessed culture. One parent, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, who has a 15-year-old daughter and has written about Mr. Trump for, emphasizes that it helped her to contextualize Trump as “a product of our branding culture and our selfie culture and our attraction to reality-show television, where the behavior is so brutal.”


Clearly many parents and teachers regard civility as a virtue, but what is also interesting here is that for this mother, at least, incivility is an inevitable product of self-absorption. Thinking only of themselves, the candidates seem to have reverted to infancy, or some sort of pre-socialized state suggested by the title of the NPR story, also from March 10, 2016: “Explaining ‘Small Hands,’ Wet Pants to Your Kids This Presidential Campaign.”    Meanwhile, voters who want to show kids the admirable qualities of aspiring presidential contenders are instead using them as potent examples of virtue gone wrong. One kindergarten teacher in the New York Times article, Carolyn Lee, urges parents to be calm when talking to their children: “I would say something like, ‘We try to treat people the way we would like to be treated, and somehow he’s showing the exact opposite of that.’ ”


Is civility a virtue? Cheshire Calhoun has argued that it is not only a virtue, but a moral virtue, and that “the function of civility is to communicate basic moral attitudes of respect, tolerance, and considerateness.” (Philosophy and Public Affairs 29:3, Summer 2000, p255). One reason why the news may be so interested in ‘the children in the room’ right now is because the adults in the room uneasily recognize that we are falling down on the job of communicating these basic moral attitudes. If we fall victim to the cheap entertainment of the brawl, the traded insults, the sneering innuendo, we are communicating that the pleasure of these is more valuable than than are the moral virtues we are supposed to be teaching our children and young adults.


Respect, tolerance, and considerateness are all predicated on the presence of others, and as such, demand a level of self-transcendence, a focus on something other than and larger than the self, that can’t be found in the boasts and banter of aggressive self-promotion. We may be fascinated by the bully’s low, defensive pride, but it is time for us as a nation to look elsewhere. If we don’t, we risk inculcating in the next generation cynicism and disgust towards political life, instead of sparking the self-transcendent commitment and optimism we all need to carry us forward.

Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Self-Examination and Self-Transcendence


Most contemporary moral philosophers believe that self-examination and self-knowledge play a central role in the development of virtue. Iris Murdoch, the British novelist and philosopher, challenged this view. Murdoch is well known for championing an ethics of vision as an alternative, or at least as a complement, to an ethics of choice.[1] In developing such an ethics Murdoch rehabilitated concepts such as grace and self-transcendence, concepts largely absent in the philosophical moral discourse of her time. We will soon see that it is not an accident that these two views come together; Murdoch’s aspirations to vindicate the ethical significance of vision are of a piece with her doubts about the power of self-examination to transform ourselves.


Murdoch’s skepticism about self-examination arises from a quite plausible picture of our own moral psychology: “human beings are naturally selfish … About the quality of this selfishness modern psychology has had something to tell us. The psyche is a historically determined individual relentlessly looking after itself… It is reluctant to face unpleasant realities. Its consciousness is not normally a transparent glass through which it views the world, but a cloud of more or less fantastic reverie designed to protect the psyche from pain.”[2]


Scholars often give Murdoch credit for insisting on the dangers and the difficulties involved in the acquisition of self-knowledge. However, they usually rebut her skepticism about its power of self-transformation. Samantha Vice provides a succinct formulation of a central thought motivating this rebuttal: “Self-knowledge is presupposed by the ideas of perfection and improvement that are so central to Murdoch’s ethics, because we improve from a certain position and from the recognition that we are not perfect. We must recognize our shortcomings, or at least suspect which parts of ourselves require moral work, before we can consciously undertake the journey.”[3]


At the heart of Vice’s proposal is a picture of an autonomous individual capable of coming to know the aspects of herself which need moral work and of transforming them. But this is, precisely, a view of moral development which Murdoch wants to question. According to Murdoch our moral growth can not be the result of our own willful efforts given how our own psychology works. Our efforts to know which aspects of ourselves require moral work and our strategies to transform these aspects will be part of the fantasies in which we are entangled; self-examination will not provide the autonomous self with the appropriate resources for self-perfection.


This, of course, raises the question of how we are supposed to undertake a project of ethical improvement. Murdoch addresses this worry by proposing that we cultivate certain forms of attention which reveal a “single, perfect, transcendent non-representable and necessarily real object of attention.”[4] These forms of attention are not unlike some of the experiences of awe discussed by Kristjan Kristjansson in this blog, forms of attention where, as he writes, one’s whole sense of self is transfigured by infinite truth and beauty, dissolved into one sacred tearful yearning to be united with something higher than oneself.


Opening up oneself to something transcendent requires abandoning the individual stance; it requires getting over ourselves. As Murdoch writes, “it is attachment to what lies outside the fantasy mechanism, and not a scrutiny of the mechanism itself, that liberates… [C]lose scrutiny of the mechanism often merely strengthens its power.”[5]


Murdoch’s literary work often illustrates this. Some of her heroes are fallen creatures incapable of redeeming themselves by their own means. Eventually, however, they are pulled out of their fallen state by the magnetic force of an experience of transcendence. In The Bell, through the mouth of James Tayper Pace, Murdoch suggests that we are transformed “from outside inwards”, “not in some imaginary concoction out of our idea of our own character – but in something so external and so remote that we can get only now and then a distant hint of it.”[6] This view resonates with what Fr. Thomas Joseph White underlined in the first working group meeting of the project: “There is darkness in our minds and weakness in our wills. We are wounded. But we have the capacity to receive grace.”


Murdoch helps us to see that the resources for ethical development can not all be found within the autonomous individual. A central part of ethical development consists in piercing through the fantasies and delusions in which our psyche is trapped. And for this we have to reach beyond ourselves, allow ourselves to be formed and transformed by transcendent experiences that afford us glimpses of what true reality looks like.


This highlights a further dimension of self-transcendence at play in the development of virtue, a dimension of self-transcendence different from the dimension that many scholars have underlined in this blog. If Murdoch is right, virtue and happiness require that we go beyond ourselves not merely in the sense of having transcendent goals and ideals, but in the sense of opening ourselves up to allow self-transcendent experiences to strike us and reorient our moral compass.



Antonaccio, Maria. “The Virtues of Metaphysics: A Review of Murdoch’s Philosophical Writings”. In Broackes, Justin, editor: Iris Murdoch, Philosopher: A Collection of Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, 155–179.

Murdoch, Iris; Conradi, Peter, editor. Existentialists and Mystics. New York: Penguin group, 1997.

Murdoch, Iris. The Bell. New York: Penguin Classics, 2001.

Vice, Samantha. “The Ethics of Self-Concern”. In Rowe, Anne, editor: Iris Murdoch. A Reassessment. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, 72–84.

[1]   Antonaccio (2012)

[2]   Murdoch (1997), 364

[3]   Vice (2007), P. 63–4

[4]   Murdoch (1997), 344

[5]   Murdoch (1997), 354-5

[6]   Murdoch (2001), Chapter 9

Santiago Mejía is a graduate assistant for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.