Wyatt Mason discusses how Leonard Cohen, Beck, Kendrick Lamar, and Tom Waits view creativity as connecting to something larger than the individual self. Mason recalls a striking moment in an interview with Cohen before his death, when a Japanese reporter asked Cohen about the line “Hineni, hineni, I’m ready my Lord,” from his recent release “You Want It Darker.” “I don’t really know the genesis, the origin,” Cohen began. “That ‘hineni,’ that declaration of readiness no matter what the outcome, that’s a part of everyone’s soul. We all are motivated by deep impulses and deep appetites to serve, even though we may not be able to locate that which we are willing to serve. So, this is just a part of my nature, and I think everybody else’s nature, to offer oneself at the critical moment when the emergency becomes articulate. It’s only when the emergency becomes articulate that we can locate that willingness to serve.”
Mason writes: “Hineni — הנני : ‘Here I am’ — is said by Moses, Abraham, and Isaiah when God appears to ask something of each of them. It’s a declaration not of location but of disposition, of willingness.” He views Cohen’s explanation as a beautiful tribute to the creative power of self-transcendence: “At critical moments, from our depths, out of an impulse not for glory, not for wealth, not for fame, not for power, but out of an appetite to serve — serve something larger than ourselves, however one might define it — the emergency inside us finally speaks.”
The article appears in the Style Magazine section, and Mason’s subjects are artfully photographed wearing Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Ermenegildo Zegna, Vince, AG, Joseph, Falke, Novesta, Sandro, Lanvin, Tod, Saint Laurent, Sunspel. Tom Waits wore his own clothes. Singer Kendrick Lamar speaks to Mason about feeling his audience connecting with music about being trapped by gang culture, and how one man explained to him: “‘I connect through your music not because I know about the gang culture; it’s the sense of wanting to be set free.’ Simple as that. He said, ‘That’s the message that you get across in this album. You’re dealing with that, but I’m dealing with drug abuse; you’re talking about the gang culture and you want to escape that and I want to escape my own self-afflictions and addictions. That’s where the connection comes from.’”
Mason quotes Beck speaking about a similar sense that songs can reveal transcendent connections that exist and have long existed between all of us: “I’ve wondered sometimes — since there isn’t really much record of music past the last few thousand years — if there is some deep memory of music, melodies in there that maybe somehow re-emerge or relate to something that we know already. There must be forgotten melodies.”
Tom Waits talks to Mason about the expression “We went out to the meadow,” as a way of illustrating the feeling musicians have when they have a self-transcendent experience making music. “‘It’s for those evenings that can only be described in that way: There were no walls, there were no music stands, there weren’t even any instruments. There was no ceiling, there was no floor, we all went out to the meadow. It describes a feeling. Usually someone will say it, but they’re probably reluctant to say it — you might be afraid that only you went out to the meadow last night. But it’s one of those things where you go as a group. It’s not like: ‘Last night was a really great show for me and it sucked for you.’ No. We all went out to the meadow. There’s something magical about it. And you can never plan on it.’”
Mason concludes with a meditation on his own sense of music connecting us through self-transcendence: “Although the expression wasn’t known to me, of course the feeling was, at least as a listener: that elemental feeling, a door swinging open in the self.”
In his novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Leo Tolstoy explores questions about happiness and the meaning of life with brutal honesty and realism. Tolstoy’s harrowing account of one man’s confrontation with his own mortality helps us to see that even the most selfish and shallow life still contains within it the inherent potential for redemption through self-transcendent, sacrificial love.
The story’s protagonist is Ivan, a late nineteenth century Russian bureaucrat who strives, above all else, to live a “decorous and pleasant life”—a life of material comfort that is, at least to the greatest extent he can manage, insulated from hardship or suffering. We read that Ivan is “capable, cheerful, and sociable” as well as “playful, witty, good-humored and bon enfant.” He is industrious in his well-appointed role as a public prosecutor and content to do “his duty,” but Tolstoy cautions us that Ivan understands duty not in the moralist’s sense, but in accordance with what members of the Russian haute bourgeoisie perceive as good, proper, and decent. It is their standards that Ivan has internalized and their approval and validation that he seeks. By this measure, even at a young age, Ivan is succeeding in living well, and this brings him great satisfaction.
As a young man Ivan falls in love with “the most attractive, intelligent, brilliant girl,” Preskovia, who was also a member of his social class and consequently shared his general outlook. Ivan married her both because he loves her (at least as he loves anything –he finds her company “agreeable”) but also because she is met with the approval of his social circle. But the demands of marriage and family life soon lose their charms for Ivan, as he learns that domesticity does not always (or perhaps even very often) fit his ideals of agreeableness; thus he quickly finds it essential “to shut himself off from such interferences” to his personal well being. To avoid the trials that typically attend family life, Ivan throws himself into his work, where he takes particular delight in the power and honors the position affords him. Of this darker aspect of Ivan’s pleasure seeking, Tolstoy writes:
The awareness of his power, the power he had to ruin anyone he chose to ruin, the importance and even the outward dignity of his entrance into the courtroom and his meetings with subordinates, his success with both superiors and subordinates, and—above all—the mastery with which, as he felt, he carried out his duties—all this gave him pleasure, and alongside chats with his colleagues, dinners, and whist [cards], it was what filled up his life. So, on the whole, the life of Ivan Ilyich went on as he felt it ought to, that is pleasantly and decorously. (p. 169)
In this way, we learn, seventeen agreeable years of Ivan’s life pass.
But then Ivan reaches a point of perceived stagnation in his career, and feels that his talents are being neglected. He sees that he is being passed over for promotions that he both desires and feels he alone deserves, and he feels forgotten and wronged by his colleagues. He sets off for Petersburg with a single aim: to get a position that carries a significant raise. Through luck he succeeds, attaining a position in a new ministry “two grades higher than his colleagues.” At this achievement, all his hard feelings are forgotten, and he is “perfectly happy.” Ivan takes particular pleasure in his awareness that he is now the envy of many colleagues who previously ignored him, and who now must grovel before him.
The newfound happiness Ivan experiences on the occasion of his promotion allows him to resume pleasant relations with his wife. Having a new influx of money, they take on the task of securing a much larger apartment they can decorate together. Ivan throws himself into this task with determination and joy, making every detail very elegant and comme il faut. He particularly relishes his thoughts of how impressed his friends will be once his vision of a finely appointed home is completely realized.
At this point in the narrative Ivan truly believes he is happy and living just as he should. Although his life is devoid of love and shot through with motives of pride, vanity, and greed, as far as he can see everything is very good. And yet Ivan stands on the precipice of existential despair. For his agreeable existence is about to be disrupted by a mysterious ailment, which will open up horizons of suffering and torments previously unimaginable to him.
Ivan’s troubles begin with bouts of nausea, and a mysterious pain on the left side of his stomach, which only grows worse over time. His condition casts a pall over his otherwise happy mood, and makes him unable to find pleasure in his normal routines. Just as quickly as their reconciliation had come about, relations between Ivan and Preskovia begin to unravel; they take to quarrelling often as Ivan finds that the easy and agreeable feelings he longs for have vanished. Soon enough, a mutual hatred grows between them.
Despite the fact that he is seeing all the most famous doctors and taking his medicines punctiliously, Ivan can see that his condition is worsening. He begins to realize the gravity of his situation, and despair descends upon him. After a month of trying to convince himself that he is improving and will recover, Ivan realizes that he is dying. And yet he is unable to comprehend or reconcile himself to this fact; in fact, he actively works to hide from the grim reality. Of Ivan’s internal struggle with the truth, Tolstoy writes:
“He couldn’t understand it, and tried to banish this thought as false, wrong, and morbid, and put other thoughts in its place, correct thoughts and healthy ones. And this thought—and not only the thought but what seemed to be the reality—kept coming back and standing there before him. And he called up a succession of other thoughts to displace this one, hoping to find support in them. He tried to return to his old thought patterns, which had once shielded him from death. But strangely enough, everything that had once screened away, hidden, or abolished the awareness of death now failed to produce that effect.” (p. 188)
Ivan finds himself in unchartered psychological territory, as neither work, cards, or his fine home can any longer distract him from the unbearable truth. He finds himself all alone, face to face with it, though there was nothing to do “but stare at it and shudder.” He must confront and reconcile himself to death, but finds he is unable.
And so his life becomes a torment to him. Ivan is particularly aggrieved by the fact that no one around him—his colleagues, his doctors, his family—will acknowledge reality. They all perpetrate the “lie” that he is merely ill; worse still, they force him to participate in this lie. And so Ivan is deprived of the pity he feels is owed to him. Ivan wants desperately to be “caressed, and kissed, and wept over” even though he knows such behavior does not befit a man of his age and social stature. Instead he is merely prodded and poked by his doctors, cajoled by his wife, and ostracized by his so-called friends.
Ivan begins to enter a phase where his sufferings take on new dimensions: fear, helplessness, loneliness, and doubt. In particular, Ivan begins to doubt that his life had been anything more than a trivial and dubious mistake. He begins to worry that he never perceived reality clearly, and that what he thought was life was really death:
“It’s as if I had been going downhill, while imagining that I was climbing uphill. That’s what it was. In society’s eyes I was going uphill, and at exactly the same pace life was vanishing from under me.” (p. 202)
But once again, while Ivan knows the truth in his heart, he is still unable to reconcile himself to it. He struggles and fights back against it:
“‘Perhaps I didn’t live as I should have done?’… ‘But how can it have been wrong, when I did everything properly?’ he said to himself, instantly dismissing as completely impossible this one and only solution to the whole riddle of life and death.” (p. 202)
Ivan’s struggle to accept the truth, “that everything had been a huge and terrible deception which had shut out both life and death” (p. 206) is his final torment, the cause of an internal struggle that sends him into a fit of madness during which he screams uninterrupted for three days. Tolstoy describes his inner ordeal as follows:
“For those three days, during which time did not exist for him, he struggled in that black sack into which some invisible, invincible force was thrusting him. He fought as a man condemned to death fights in the arms of the executioner, knowing that he could not save himself; and minute by minute he felt that, despite all his struggles, he was drawing nearer and nearer to the thing that horrified him. He felt that his torment lay both in the fact that he was being thrust into that black hole, and even more so in the fact that he could not get into it. And what prevented him from getting into it was his awareness that his life had been a good one. It was this justification of his own life that held him back, not letting him go forward, and tormenting him more than anything.” (p. 207-8)
The struggle ends when Ivan has a sudden revelation: his life really was a worthless mistake, but it could now “be put right.” But how? Ivan does not have a clear answer until Vasya enters the room, kisses his hand, and bursts into tears; soon after Preskovia, who is also weeping, enters as well. For the first time Ivan sees what they need from him and lovingly responds. He realizes that to let himself die he needs to cease justifying his own life. And so, instead of continuing to try to reassure himself, he asks them for forgiveness for his failures. And with that gesture, suddenly,
“it was clear to him that the thing that had been oppressing him, and not letting him go, was now releasing him all at once, from two sides, from ten sides, from every side. He was sorry for them, and he must do what is needed so that they should not be hurt.” (p.209)
At last Ivan sees how to put things right: he can, and will, for the first time in his life, put the needs of others before his own. And with that final act of love and reconciliation, Ivan conquers death—the spiritual death of being trapped inside the prison of the self—and in so doing redeems his pathetic life. For it was that same selfishness that had him locked in an ongoing struggle with truth that was preventing him from the possibility of a happy death. Of Ivan’s final moments, Tolstoy writes that he searches for death but cannot find it: “Instead of death there was light.” By embracing the truth of sacrificial love for others, Ivan is released from his suffering and dies in a condition hitherto unknown to him—not a state of agreeable pleasure, but immense joy.
Recently, I have touted the benefits of self-transcendence (ST) in several publications (e.g., Wong, 2016a, b). Since all things exist in polarity (Wong, 2016c, d), naturally, ST also has its downside. This essay will explore the dark side of ST and suggest ways to prevent it.
Examples of Negative Self-Transcendence
An estimated 21,500 civilians have been killed in East Aleppo, more than 400,000 refugees have fled Aleppo, and over four million citizens have left Syria. Yet, Syrian President al-Assad, in an interview with the French media, asserted that all the bombings and killings of innocent people were necessary for the noble cause of liberating them! (BBC, 2017).
Similarly, suicide-bombers and other terrorists justify their atrocities in the name of a holy war against infidels. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) firmly believe that it is necessary to sacrifice millions of lives in order to achieve the noble cause of “religious cleansing” and establishing an Islamic State (Erimtan, 2015).
During the second world war, Adolf Hitler was responsible for the termination of more than six million Jews. He too justified the Holocaust with the perverse ideology of ethnic cleansing and creating the Third Reich—the third glorious age.
History abounds with atrocities and genocides in service of some causes greater than personal interests, such as redressing current injustice, revenging past wounds, restoring past glories, and creating a strong homeland.
The troubling question is: Why are so many rational people prepared to commit such evils for the sake of some cause? How can people use their intellect and twisted logic to justify unimaginable evils against other human beings?
Justification for Negative Self-Transcendence
Several hypotheses have been put forward to explain terrorism and wars. Moghaddam’s (2005) hypothesis in “The Staircase to Terrorism” proposed that the terrorist act represents the final step of a narrowing staircase for those who feel deprived and treated unfairly without a voice in society. When they are recruited by terrorist organizations, they are given a legitimate reason to attack the privileged out-group members as being evil.
In a similar vein, Kruglanski (2006) suggested that terrorists could use terrorism as a tool to achieve the “greater good” of justice or a better future for their people. Recently, Friedman (2016) expounded on a similar view regarding terrorism and the ISIS movement.
From a different perspective, Pyszczynski, Solomon, and Greenburg’s (2004) terror management theory (TMT) argues that culture worldview (CWV) serves the function of buffering our existential anxieties; therefore, we often become hostile towards those endorsing different beliefs, which threaten our own sense of security. Some extremists may resort to terrorism to protect their beliefs.
In an interview with Jason Tucker and Jason VandenBuekel (2016), Jordan Peterson recognized that “in a sophisticated religious system, there is a positive and negative polarity. Ideologies simplify that polarity and, in doing so, demonize and oversimplify.”
Peterson’s (1999) book and course entitled Maps of Meaning was designed to teach these ideas. In that interview, he also said: “I was particularly interested in what led people to commit atrocities in service of their belief. … One of the things that I’m trying to convince my students of is that if they had been in Germany in the 1930s, they would have been Nazis. Everyone thinks ‘Not me,’ and that’s not right. It was mostly ordinary people who committed the atrocities that characterized Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union” (Tucker & VandenBeukel, 2016).
That is really scary—ordinary people could be indoctrinated to commit atrocities! What can be done to counteract the insidious process of radicalization?
In sum, there are two justifications for the bad kind of ST: (1) Sacrificing innocent people is needed to achieve some goals greater than oneself; and (2) violence against others is justified in order to protect our own beliefs and values.
Both justifications raise serious questions of ethics and values. First, no civil society can long survive if any social agent is allowed to employ violent means to achieve whatever one considers as a good cause; there have to be more rational and ethical ways to accomplish the common good.
Second, democracy is possible only when all people are of equal value; there is no legal or ethical justification to sacrifice some individuals or some groups of people for the benefits of any special group of individuals.
Third, ultimately, human life must be valued as sacred; it cannot be demonized or reduced to something that can be easily terminated in the service of one’s beliefs. Thus, one way to counteract radicalization and terrorism is to educate people regarding the value and sanctity of human life.
Is There a Solution?
I propose that Viktor Frankl’s theory of good ST (Wong, 2016e) will reduce the likelihood of negative ST. Because of his own harrowing experience in the hands of Hitler and Nazism, Frankl took great pains to emphasize the need for treating others with ethnical responsibility.
Thus, ST by definition is based on the values of benevolence and universalism (Schwartz, 1992, 1994), according to the best lights of one’s conscience and the highest standard of enduring values (Frankl, 1985). ST represents a loving and virtuous way of relating to ourselves and others according to the better angels of our nature (Pinker, 2011).
There are always two options—a staircase to spirituality (Haidt, 2012) and a staircase to terrorism (Moghaddam, 2005). When we keep the values of love and life at the forefront of our consciousness, one will choose the positive types of ST; when we value hate and revenge, one will be attracted to the negative type of ST. Education in ST is needed to enhance human adaptability and reduce global terrorism.
I want to conclude by quoting from my earlier publication:
The present self-transcendence hypothesis states that all purposes are not equal. Misguided life purposes, such as pursuing pleasure and power with total disregard for ethical and legal issues, eventually will result in self-destruction. However, when we strive to serve a higher purpose and greater good, then each step of the journey is rewarding and inspiring, even when we do not receive recognition or reward. (Wong, 2016e)
Schwartz, S. H. (1992). Universals in the content and structure of values: Theoretical advances and empirical tests in 20 countries. Advances in Experimental Psychology, 25(1), 1-65. doi:10.1016/S0065-2601(08)60281-6
Schwartz, S. H. (1994). Are there universal aspects in the content and structure of values? Journal of Social Issues, 50(4), 19-45. doi:10.1111/j.1540-4560.1994.tb01196.x
“In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousand fold in the future. When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from new generations.”
So wrote Nobel Prize-winning Russian novelist Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn in his monumental The Gulag Archipelago, detailing the history and horrors of the Soviet labor camps, published 43 years ago this week. The book was met with instant international acclaim; one review in the New York Timescalled its subject “the other great holocaust of our century.” In the wake of its publication Solzhenitsyn became something of a pop-culture cold war hero in the U.S., where interest in militarism and interventionist policies had been fading in the aftermath of Vietnam. Solzenitsyn’s belief that Russia should turn away from international military involvement and embrace the Church and its own rich cultural history was favorably received by conservatives, as was his view that the U.S. had capitulated too quickly in Vietnam. Liberals embraced him as a dissident and rebel, though he was criticized for his insistence that Lenin was as culpable as Stalin for the monstrous atrocities of Soviet totalitarianism, and that the political state is often its own end regardless of its founding ideology.
Solzhenitsyn’s unstinting criticism of Western materialism often made him a difficult figure. He spent nearly two decades in the U.S., yet never stopped railing against what he saw as its moral complacency and spiritual emptiness. In 1978 he shocked many with his commencement address at Harvard University, where he was given an honorary doctorate in literature. In it, he urged his audience to look beyond the material satisfactions of U.S. culture:
“If humanism were right in declaring that man is born only to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature. It cannot be unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. It cannot be the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully get the most of them. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one’s life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than one started it. It is imperative to review the table of widespread human values. Its present incorrectness is astounding. It is not possible that assessment of the President’s performance be reduced to the question how much money one makes or of unlimited availability of gasoline. Only voluntary, inspired self-restraint can raise man above the world stream of materialism.” Link
Critics often shrugged off Solzhenitsyn’s social commentary while acknowledging the truth of the horrors he wrote about; one anecdote in his New York Times obituary recounts Susan Sontag’s conversation with Russian poet Joseph Brodsky:
“We were laughing and agreeing about how we thought Solzhenitsyn’s views on the United States, his criticism of the press, and all the rest were deeply wrong, and on and on,” she said. “And then Joseph said: But you know, Susan, everything Solzhenitsyn says about the Soviet Union is true. Really, all those numbers—60 million victims—it’s all true.”
Also included in the Times obituary is the story of how Solzhenitsyn managed to smuggle out writing under the harshest conditions of Soviet internment. Banished under Stalin to Ekibastuz, a camp where writing was routinely confiscated and which would become the source of his novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, Solzhenistyn used a special rosary fashioned for him by Lithuanian Catholic prisoners to commit 12,000 lines of prose to memory, using one bead for each passage.
Such conditions are almost impossible to fathom for Americans living today in a world of relative material comforts and freedom of the press. Yet his critique of our shallow moral standards and sense of entitlement is at least as relevant now as it was in 1978. Should we elect political leaders based on our satisfaction or dissatisfaction with our salaries, or the price of gas? Or should we also have a higher purpose in mind, a vision of somehow making the world a better place?
Solzhenitsyn was prescient about the effect materialism would have on the political landscape, seeming to forecast the yearning for what Ronald Reagan would articulate a couple years later as “morning in America,” the vision that rejected the economic and political uncertainty of the Carter years in favor of a nation characterized by plentiful goods, free enterprise, and military might. Now it appears we are in another 1978 moment, a moment characterized much as it was then, by economic fear, fear of international terrorism, and lack of faith in political leadership. In The Unfinished Presidency: Jimmy Carter’s Journey Beyond the White House, Douglas Brinkley describes the moment of Carter’s loss as one that seems on the surface very unlike our own, yet at bottom contains the same underlying fear and malaise. Carter’s era culminated in “inflation in the double digits, oil prices triple what they had been, unemployment above 7 percent, interest rates topping 20 percent, fifty-two American hostages still held captive in Iran, and unsettling memories of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.” Link
In contrast, the U.S. economy this October, just before the 2016 election, saw the biggest economic growth in two years, increased exports, and a shrinking unemployment rate, yet the economic insecurity of 2008 continues to linger eight years later, much as the effects of recession lingered throughout the 1970s. U.S. growth in October of this year was historically slow compared to historic measures, and our “gig economy,” where people drive their own cars for companies like Uber and Lyft, means that millions of workers are filling temp jobs because they can’t find stable, well-paying work. Link
Thus while we are not nearly as precarious economically as we were in 1980, we feel as precarious as we did in 1980. On the one hand, it is right to take note of economic conditions that leave too many people living in poverty, whether from the unavailability of any work or the availability of only the lowest-paying kind of work, and as a result choose to vote for better opportunities for everyone. On the other hand, faced with having too little, or thinking we have less than we should, or fearing we will lose what we have, some of us vote to have more, no matter the cost.
We find it hard to ask, whether in asking for more than we have, or more than we think we can get, if we are in fact asking for the right things. In the wake of a 2016 election defined for many by the fear of “falling behind,” of losing the material security promised by the American Dream, we need to think about how we define the contents of that dream and examine the entitlement behind the notion of “falling behind.” We now know that many more voters were galvanized this year by appeals to fear and entitlement than were moved by visions of social justice and equality. We need to address the appeal of fear and entitlement before we can go on to articulate a larger vision of a just society where there is opportunity for everyone.
Appeals to morality rarely win elections. We now know that “the unlimited availability of gasoline,” for example, while making certain economic sense, is not the best thing to ask for when electing public officials, especially given the devastating effects of carbon emissions on the global environment. Yet the virtue of self-restraint—temperance, really—called for by Solzhenitsyn in his Harvard commencement address is no more popular now than it was in 1978, when many Americans rejected it in favor of a 1950s-style domestic prosperity characterized by plenty of cheap gas and consumer goods.
President Carter, a famously moral person who spoke openly against violence and advocated daily prayer, was unable to effectively sell his vision that U.S. voters should cultivate temperate, self-transcendent characters. Solzhenitsyn’s warning in this era that human life must consist of more than “the search for the best ways to obtain material goods” vanished in a country weary of recession and fearful of international terrorism, and is similarly lost today in a nation where people fear slipping into poverty at home as a result of stagnant wages and vanishing jobs, and see only an unstable and violent world abroad. Yet Solzhenitsyn’s warning that Americans—humans—are prone to self-interest and self-indulgence is one we should still heed. His insistence that the human tendency to keep one’s head down in the presence of injustice proliferates injustice is especially urgent in our moment, when the temptation to retreat into private life can seem so seductive. In this dangerous world, getting involved is a necessary self-transcendence, “the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty,” a call to witness, and a call to action.
Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.
Our second summer seminar, “Virtue, Happiness, and Self-transcendence” is June 18 – 23, 2017 at the University of Chicago and features renown teachers in philosophy, psychology, and religious studies.
Our Seminar is intended for outstanding middle- and advanced-level graduate students and early career researchers in the areas of Philosophy, Psychology, and Theology/Religious Studies. Our aim is to involve participants in our innovative and collaborative research framework within these three fields, and to provide an engaged environment to deepen and enliven their own research.
Fr. Stephen L. Brockis Professor of Medieval Philosophy, Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome. He earned a B.A. in Philosophy at the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto. Brock writes widely on Thomas Aquinas and action theory, ethics, and metaphysics. He is the author of The Philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas. A Sketch (Wipf & Stock, 2015) and Action & Conduct: Thomas Aquinas and the Theory of Action (T&T Clark, 1998).
Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and principal investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life. Prior to joining the philosophy faculty at UofSC, she was a Collegiate Assistant Professor of Humanities at the University of Chicago, where she was a member of the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts. She earned her PhD in philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, and her B.A. in Philosophy and Medieval Studies (with Classics minor) at Indiana University-Bloomington. Her research lies at the intersection of philosophy of action and ethics, with a particular focus on the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition.
Dan P. McAdams is the Henry Wade Rogers Professor of Psychology and Professor of Human Development and Social Policy at Northwestern University. A personality and life-span developmental psychologist, Professor McAdams has explored the role of life narrative in human development, and how themes of agency, redemption, and generativity shape American biography, politics, society, and culture. He is the author most recently of The Art and Science of Personality Development (Guilford Press, 2015) and The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By (Oxford University Press, 2006/2013).
Candace Vogleris the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and a principal investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life. She has authored two books, John Stuart Mill’s Deliberative Landscape: An essay in moral psychology (Routledge, 2001) and Reasonably Vicious (Harvard University Press, 2002), and essays in ethics, social and political philosophy, philosophy and literature, cinema, psychoanalysis, gender studies, sexuality studies, and other areas. Her research interests are in practical philosophy (particularly the strand of work in moral philosophy indebted to Elizabeth Anscombe), practical reason, Kant’s ethics, Marx, and neo-Aristotelian naturalism.
For more information on the seminar, the sessions, and to apply, click here.
In my last post, I ended with several questions about the purpose of higher education, and the relationship of higher education to human flourishing:
What is the point of seeking higher education in the United States these days?
What are we meant to be providing for our students?
What should they have when they compete their degrees that they did not have when they first matriculated?
The most obvious answers to these questions are not, I think, especially helpful to us. For example, reasonably stable statistics suggest that for most—but not all—people earning a four-year college degree will increase income-earning potential. The degree is a requirement for a better-paying job than one can get with a high school diploma (or its equivalent).
Notice that it is not obvious why this is the case. Some people think that the degree demonstrates to potential employers that the student can succeed in sticking to a course of study, has some experience with whatever level of self-discipline is required to show up for classes often enough, and, if her transcript is strong, has met some serious standards of assessment for work along the way. In addition, the person who completes her degree program and emerges with a strong transcript will have undergone important socialization outside the confines of her family. The university is a sheltered sort of larger world, but a larger world nonetheless, and, in the course of learning to live and work in the little larger world, the successful undergraduate will have developed at least some new interests and become involved in some sorts of groups or community activities that help to prepare her to take part in a larger sort of larger world.
If that’s all that we are doing for our students, if that’s all that they take away from our work with them, then we are failing them and failing to understand the kind of opportunity we have in higher education. Who are these people—our prospective and actual students? Many of them are young adults, sometimes away from home for the first time, often anxious, often hopeful, and almost inevitably at a crucial point in their lives where they are beginning to make the decisions and take the actions that will open or close the doors on how they will live after they leave us. They sometimes are full of questions about ethics or politics. If they think that all those questions have been answered for them long ago, they may be moving around in a perilous place with brittle conviction in an environment that, at its best, will at least ask that they have something to say on behalf of what they have come to take for granted. Some are entering our institutions or returning to such institutions after having been at work or at war.
Whether they are new to us or familiar with higher education, they may have very little experience with genuine educational moments. Genuine educational moments are necessarily alarming and destabilizing. In a genuine educational experience, one finds that a thing one has simply accepted or taken for granted wobbles. Educational experience disrupts one’s sense of mastery.
This is obviously true when one is learning higher mathematics or formal logic or a new language. By definition, advancing in a new language or learning a new formal system requires learning—usually through the wretched process of making mistake after mistake until the thing becomes more habitual, and it is possible to innovate a little—make a new sentence; figure out the sort of equation one needs in order to cope with the engineering problem; locate what’s broken in the program and fix it. In these fields the subject matter itself provides some of the standards one has to meet in order to do well. But a question ought to haunt students who are busily acquiring technical competence or linguistic ability. That question ought to be: to what end? Why should I go through the torture of learning German or Latin or organic chemistry or real analysis? Why should anyone subject herself to such discipline at all when you’d have to be mad to be incapable of imagining a more pleasant way of spending an hour or two this afternoon?
If the answer is something like ‘because I need to do well in organic chemistry in order to get into medical school,’ or ‘I have to know German in order to take the kind of position I want with a multi-national firm based in Hamburg, or else to do doctoral work in art history, say, or some area of history or philosophy,’ then, I think, the ‘Why?’-question ought to re-appear. And why go on with those things?
My disappointed, restless, demoralized and self-actualized thirty-somethings did not ask that second set of ‘Why?’ questions. All of them hold good degrees. Nothing in their academic careers demonstrated to them, or even asked of them, very much about the point of what they were learning. None of them were in an educational setting where it was as natural as reading or breathing or completing a homework assignment to attend to the way in which their academic work was meant to suit them to participate in a larger common good. Not just to give them new things to be interested in or to puzzle about. Not just to get them over a hurdle that they had to cross in order to try to clear the next hurdle. Rather, to give them something that could make it possible for them to be a source of good in the lives of people they will never invite over to dinner and will never meet at the interval at the opera.
In my line of work, people are often made very anxious by the suggestion that there needs to be a special point to our teaching and our research. We sometimes think that any suggestion that we ought to have something to say on this score threatens to reduce the grandeur of the life of the mind—an especially high and serious sort of calling for our sort of animal; the sort of thing that makes a human being more important than a really wonderful dog (even when the dog’s company is more pleasant)—to reduce the value of what we do to some grubby instrumental sort of affair belonging to the shabby business of getting and spending rather than the higher calling of truth and beauty and goodness.
I am all in favor of truth and beauty and goodness. I tend to think that genuine attachments to truth and beauty and goodness are attachments to common human good. These attachments are inexhaustible. My attachments to these can never exclude yours. Yours can never damage mine. When all goes well, mine instead enrich yours, and yours mine. And provided that we are honest and fair, and have the sort of humility that belongs to such matters properly understood, we can all seek a share in truth and beauty and goodness. I don’t think that such an aspiration is the kind of thing that allows for the cultivation of a big ego, actually. Again, properly governed, the self shrinks in the face of such things.
For all that, I tend to be pretty flat-footed about the daily business of higher education. Whatever subject I am teaching, my aim is to understand my classroom as a community gathered together for the sake of having and sharing an important educational experience—focused on the books or passages or films or images that we confront, and entering these things as human cultural materials produced in the face of genuine questions about what it is to be human, and how one ought to live. The silent partner in most of my classrooms is Aquinas. He taught me to understand that every student I have is there because they want to pursue something good, or avoid something bad. He taught me that they all have a basic grasp of what is good or bad in human life, even if almost none of them can articulate it. He taught me that we are all of us intellectual animals, and that, for us, it takes work to develop harmonious thought and feeling, desire and action, in order to pursue good reasonably and avoid bad appropriately. And he taught me that, even when one has a measure of wisdom in these matters, the ethical remains challenging. To put it bluntly, by the lights of this Catholic thinker, having a full measure of acquired wisdom—a good character, properly virtuous dispositions, and so on—will not obviate the need to go to confession. There still will be things that we do and fail to do, say and fail to say, think and fail to think, that we will have good reason to regret on reflection. And, for all of that, our bits are made to work together reasonably and harmoniously, even if almost none of us ever quite manages to live an entirely well-ordered life.
In higher education we are charged with helping our students learn to prepare for productive futures as creatures oriented to participation in larger common good—whether that is the good of the neighborhood, the good of the firm, the good of one’s patients or clients. In a culture that seems overwhelmingly directed to self-enhancement, self-expression, self-actualization, affluence, power, winning, and success, we have to help them to see what they do from a higher vantage point. We have to help them be alert to the people around them, even if only those people in the classroom. We have to help them see themselves as charged not just with getting whatever they might be able to get from us that could give them a clear path gainful employment after they leave us, but to recognize the larger goods and potential pitfalls at issue in any path to gainful employment they might pursue.
In this sense, I think, the height of higher education is better measured by the wider context in which we work. And, since, as near as I can tell, human beings are made for orientation to common good—again, on however small or grand a scale—I think that this is not nearly as abstract or difficult as it might seem from my words about truth and goodness and beauty. We can count on this in one another, whether or not we know it. And those of us who have faith in God can rely on Him for some help.
I promised to tall you two stories. The second is an extracurricular story about a garden.
My husband and I live on the south side of Chicago in a mixed income neighborhood not far from the Lake where many children live in poverty and many adults struggle to make ends meet. My husband and I have colonized the large vacant lot next to our building and made of it a park-like community garden. I have a big flower border, because flowers feed everybody. We have a community herb bed, and a vegetable garden that provides a lot of neighborhood folks with greens and cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers, carrots and beets all summer long. There is a stand of mulberry trees at one spot, and my husband built a low, very solid, very good treehouse in the largest of them with steps leading up to the big deck. The kids play on that lot all summer, and we made the treehouse for them. But, partly because the garden is the nicest place to be anywhere in the immediate vicinity, shortly after the treehouse was up, older kids started hanging out in the treehouse after dark on the weekends. Many belonged to what we call “street organizations,” but what you most likely know as “gangs.” The neighbors across the alley were in an uproar over this. They insisted that the treehouse had to come down. Of course, taking it down would have meant getting rid of the best and safest place to play during the day for scores of children.
So my husband started praying about it. We went back over basic Aquinas on human nature—how everyone has natural reason; how everyone wants to be toward good and away from bad…those things. And one night, when the treehouse has more than the usual crowd of armed folks using drugs and hanging out, my husband baked a big batch of chocolate chip cookies and headed out to the treehouse with two plates of cookies and a mission.
“We have to talk,” he said, offering them cookies.
And they talked. He explained that he understood that there were no jobs for them in our neighborhood and that they were in the underground economy for good reasons. But, he pointed out, their work put them at big risks of being victims of drive-by-shootings. “It would break my heart,” he said, “to find myself out here cleaning your blood off this treehouse.”
They have to make a living. No question there. But the garden is not the place for that activity. It is not even a place to use drugs.
They talked a long time. He explained that he was under pressure to dismantle to treehouse, and what that would cost the kids who played there all day. That it would cost the older kids a place to hang out in the early evening as well.
And they agreed.
Then they talked about cussing. My husband explained that he was, himself, a writer, and had very high regard for verbal artistry. He praised their impromptu, virtuoso skill with language. And allowed as how there had to be places to do their art. But, again, the garden was not that place. There were children. There were old people. It was important to make this very good place a special place where what passed between people was gentle and kind.
And they agreed.
That was three years ago. No one sells drugs from the garden. No one uses drugs in the garden. No one cusses loudly and at length in the garden. (Of course a bad word or two will leak out if someone, say, hits his thumb with a hammer or something.) Everyone recognizes the garden as a safe, beautiful place made to for anyone who wants to visit. We still have kids who throw tomatoes. We still have little ones who get in tussles and accidentally run over new beds sometimes. The youngest of this season’s local children still are children. But no one has any problem with the treehouse.
The local leaders of what we call “street organizations” are fully capable of hearing a call to preserve and protect a garden, and of changing course for the sake of common good.
If we can do this with a small band of armed drug dealers on the south side of Chicago, what does it say about us if we are unwilling to teach our students to locate their studies in a developing awareness of the good at stake in what we teach them? How are we seeing these beings if we do not think that they arrive hungry for ways of directing themselves to a larger good than a future paycheck?
Of course we have to attend to the future paycheck. I grew up in a scrappy world where future paychecks were tremendously important, and I had tenure before I finished paying off my student loans. But I was in the process of finding a vocation in addition to getting a degree with no expectation that it would turn into a job. And that eye toward the higher thing is what made it all worthwhile.
Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and Director and Principal Investigator for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.
I will tell us two stories—the first is about a group of highly successful people in their early 30s—doctors, business people, and a few junior partners at good corporate law firms. One is a former student. I began meeting the others in planes several years ago. (I travel a lot on the same airline; the miles make it possible for me to provide plane tickets for people who can’t afford to fly; they also get me a lot of free upgrades.) All of the professionals I met had impressive undergraduate records at good secular four-year colleges or universities. The doctors and lawyers had very respectable advanced degrees. Unlike some high-achievers, the ones I met were more likely than not to have children and several even belonged to churches. And, one-on-one, individually, each one talked to me about how things were going. My former student was about to flee a wildly successful job at Goldman Sachs in New York. The others just wanted to talk to someone, and even though telling people that you teach philosophy does not inspire quite the revelations that one of my colleagues gets when he tells people that he’s a psychoanalyst, when people hear “philosophy” they sometimes get thoughtful. And confidential.
To the extent that I could tell from brief acquaintance with the strangers (and long, if sporadic, association with my former student) these shining people had done everything they thought they were supposed to do to lead full lives. They were educated. The doctors had not done much with anything in the humanities because they had to get through so many requirements to get their pre-med out of the way and because there is really no time for that when you are in med school and doing your residency, but they listened to music or saw art occasionally when they could. To the extent you can tell by looking, my acquaintances were healthy. Most were still paying back some student loans, but they were doing well—many were buying homes of one kind or another. They had friends. They had some sort of family. As I say, a few belonged to churches. A few had some other sort of community, if only at work. And they were, to all appearances, pretty good human beings.
Here is what I learned about these young men and women, who were everything that parents concerned about the soaring costs of higher education could see as evidence that the investment was worth it: they were lost people.
A few were angry about that. A few felt guilty about that. And all of them expected that a philosopher ought to understand what was wrong. So I asked a lot of questions—you can ask a lot of questions on a long airplane flight and these poster children for our culture were accustomed to talking about themselves. They were high-achievers. They had made their parents proud. They were popular. I like to listen. And what I wanted to hear was how the machinery of very good institutions of higher education that were, as we say, secular—we are in the U.S. where the term was invented to mark the separation of church and state as in ‘no state religion; many sects,’ by which lights my university used to be secular and has become merely unaffiliated. Anyway, I was trying to understand how institutions of higher learning with no religious or faith affiliation had failed these people. The strangers had attended brick-and-mortar institutions. They had had teachers in classrooms with them. They had been in communities. Learning communities. And their lives were hollow.
Instead of something like happiness they had scattered moments of excitement or pleasure. Instead of challenging and nurturing intimacy they had phones with lots of photographs of pets or children to document the moments when things felt more or less okay. As Karl Marx put it in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, I was meeting human beings who lived like birds—they had nests or, at least, large loans at low interest rates attached to what would be their nests. They flew here and there gathering things to bring back to the nests to feed and shelter and amuse themselves and any nestlings. They woke each morning with a huge to-do list hitting them in the face. And then flew off again. At least they were busy. Very, very busy. But there was no sense of meaning. There was no sense of purpose. There was, instead, the creeping realization that a busy life is not a full life, and that they had managed to get through a lot of higher education without ever developing the inner orientation or wider attachments that make all of the knowledges they had acquired and skills they had learned have a point.
One could object that their universities had not failed them. After all, the whole culture directs them to do what they did, and to focus their energies in the way that they had focused them. But Institutions of higher learning have tremendous influence on young people, and my strangers had all gone straight from secondary schooling to universities or four-year colleges.
Faced with my unhappy thirty-somethings I tried to think about the difference between people whose lives are hollow and people whose lives are full. I am a philosopher. We don’t have data. We have anecdotes. And in stories and writings we look for patterns, and we tend to look for patterns in an abstract sort of way with an eye toward catching sight of a problem.
It did not take much work to sense the problem that had hollowed out the lives of these beautiful young people. They had been fed a steady diet of the need to perform, to actualize themselves, to get an increasingly articulate sense of who they were and what they cared about, to find themselves, to express themselves, to meet the standards of their professions, to get ahead, and to use all of that effort to put together a secure life for themselves and any children who might come their way. Hollow people running to and fro in the shells of very busy lives punctuated by highs having to do with additional achievement spikes at work, fancy holidays in exotic places, and the undeniably wonderful things that the children said and did now and then, or genuinely heartwarming exchanges with the dogs or the cats. Higher education in the United States had prepared them for nothing better than this.
Frankly, it’s not worth it if that’s all we have to offer.
We are meant to guide and help them make a transition from home to the world in a way that equips them to act well. At their ages, with their tasks, and with our resources, moral formation will take place on campuses whether we like it or not. Higher education failed my thirty-somethings either by failing to attend to this obvious point, or else by attending to it and having whole modes of formation built right into the design and conduct of every class that cannot but churn out highly successful hollow people who are, of course, more likely than many to pay back their student loans.
I have been working with a grant from the John Templeton Foundation called “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.” We are a network project, bringing together an extraordinary group of empirical psychologists of many stripes, philosophers, theologians, and religious thinkers to read each other’s disciplinary works-in-progress with a shared set of foci. We want to understand the connections between virtue, happiness, and a sense of meaning or purpose in life. We want to use that shared focus to intervene in our separate disciplines. It is an unusual grant. So far, it is going very well.
It looked to me like happiness and virtue came apart in the lives of the thirty-somethings, and that senses of meaning or purpose were at best temporary, local, episodic, goal-based, and not quite the things that add up to any overall sense that life is worth living.
Now, there are scholars of Aristotle who will insist that these people are not really virtuous, because if you really are virtuous, then you will be a good human being who enjoys the special kind of happiness that comes of living a good human life. I have never known what to make of this view, even though I know one genuinely happy Aristotelian virtue ethicist who think just this, and two very serious Aristotle scholars who likewise seem to believe it, and to be both good human beings and pretty happy.
They are interested in the happiness that is sometimes called “flourishing,” which is the spiritually muted English translation of the Greek term eudaimonia. The daimon-bit in eudaimonia suggests some sort of traffic with divinity—a topic that is difficult and strange in Aristotle. So one can think of “flourishing” as the acceptable English translation that highlights what humans have in common with every other living thing.
These thinkers are very comfortable with the thought that the thing that people most want is happiness, and even my preferred neo-Aristotelian, Thomas Aquinas, takes some such view on board, although the desired happiness is not properly identified with good feeling or satisfaction or contentment in temporal life—the thing that my restless thirty-somethings found inexplicably absent both at work and at home.
It might be the case that there are no necessary connections between happiness and virtue, or between either of these and having a sense of meaning or purpose in life. Perhaps stubborn insistence that these things ought to connect up has more to do with a philosophical fantasy than with the business of leading a good life. I don’t think so, although I confess that I have never thought about happiness as a thing to go after, or unhappiness as a sign that I must have gone off the rails in some way. Still, partly in deference to a long tradition of thinkers much greater than I, I got very interested in the difference between hollow lives and full lives, and I had the hunch that full lives were lives lived with a keen sense of participating in, and working for, a good that was larger than just my own welfare, achievements, success, and self-actualization alongside the well being of those in my intimate circle. What was missing from the lives of those accomplished young professionals was, I suspected, a way of living that was fundamentally attuned to common good. Sadly, at this level of description, I think that there really is a place to ask questions about virtue and character and formation from a Thomistic neo-Aristotelian position.
As I read Aquinas, there is no such thing as genuine virtue that is entirely self-serving, even when I expand my sense of my self to include, say, members of my immediate family and my friends. The term that our research project uses to mark this point is self-transcendence—initially introduced in motivational psychology by Abraham Maslow to mark an orientation to life that was superior to an emphasis on self-actualization.
What, you may be asking yourself at this point, does all this talk of hollow lives, happy lives, self-transcendence, and good character have to do with higher education?
To answer this question, it helps to ask other questions:
What is the point of seeking higher education in the United States these days?
What are we meant to be providing for our students?
What should they have when they compete their degrees that they did not have when they first matriculated?
In the next post [scheduled for Friday, November 18], I will consider these questions and tell a couple of stories about moral education and everyday life.
Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and Director and Principal Investigator for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.