Beauty, Transcendence, and the Inclusive Hierarchy of Creation 

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Creation of Adam by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, Rome

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.

Thomas Joseph White, O.P., is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology, Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies.

 

Interpreters of Thomas Aquinas have long argued about whether he holds that beauty is a “transcendental,” that is to say a feature of reality coextensive with all that exists, like unity, goodness and truthfulness.

In the first part of this essay I will argue that Aquinas can be read to affirm in an implicit way that there is beauty in everything that exists. He also affirms clearly that this beauty derives from God, who Aquinas says is beautiful.

In the second part of the essay I will consider what it might mean from a Thomist point of view to speak of a transcendent divine beauty, and what is cannot mean philosophically speaking, given Aquinas’ other metaphysical commitments with regard to divine simplicity in particular. In the final part of the essay I hope to treat the question of how the beauty of the creation both manifests and conceals divine beauty, and to give special attention to the topic of hierarchy of perfections in creatures (as being, living and intellectual). My argument will be that Aquinas’ hierarchical understanding of reality is inclusive in character, so that an order of ethical and religious ethics derives from the natural order of beauty. The world’s natural beauty is meant to be respected and cared for in ways that acknowledge the intrinsic ontological integrity of “lesser” realities but also their inclusion within an order that sustains rational creatures, and their reference to the divine.

Law and Virtue in Jewish Tradition

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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.

David Shatz is Ronald P. Stanton University Professor of Philosophy, Ethics, and Religious Thought, Yeshiva University,

 

Because law plays a central role in Judaism, one initially assumes that its code of conduct is best characterized as an act morality rather than agent morality. In addition, one expects questions about proper conduct to be answered by rabbinic authorities formalistically– by derivation of the law from existing precedent laws by use of analogies. At their core, these expectations about Jewish ethics are correct. My aim in this paper, however, is to explore to what extent Jewish ethics can be characterized as well as an agent morality– that is, how, in Jewish tradition, considerations of virtue do or do not impact on norms and how they do or do not override formalistic derivations of proper conduct.  The topic itself is not new, but I aim at a synthesis, analysis, and critique that is somewhat distinctive.

It must be said at the outset that Jewish tradition pays close attention to developing virtues. Indeed the literature on virtue is immense. Most famously, we have Maimonides’ work Eight Chapters, which is largely about virtue, and a section of his monumental legal code Mishneh Torah titled “Laws of Character Traits,” Medieval pietistic literature is a goldmine for explorations of character, and the Musar (translation: ethical) movement in the 19th century addressed in prodigious detail what traits are desirable and how to acquire them. Humility, faith, self-control,  fear of heaven, love, kindness, compassion, altruism—these and more are foci of the huge virtue ethics literature in Judaism. The question is how this high regard for virtue, this spotlight on agent-morality, interacts with the rule-centeredness act-morality of Jewish law (Hebrew: Halakhah).

In particular, I want to show how the following theses about the law-virtue relationship appear in Jewish texts, and to explore some questions and disagreements surrounding them.

1)    Some biblical laws are based on the desire to inculcate certain virtues and not on the belief that the actions proscribed or prescribed are in and of itself objectionable.

2)    At times doing the right thing may diminish one’s character. (I’ll call this the problem of moral attrition.)

3)    At times, doing the right thing reflects a character flaw—some right actions are such that a good person wouldn’t do them.

4)    A concern for virtue expands the parameters of obligation.

5)    Actions “bein adam la-havero” (=between two people, such as a giver of charity and a recipient) should not be motivated by submission to rules but rather should flow from inclinations (pace Kant).

 

Such claims appear in general philosophical literature, and the paper will utilize some of that material in examining the Jewish texts.

Cooperation in evil and Thomas Aquinas’s understanding of justice

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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.

Kevin Flannery, S.J., is Professor of the History of Ancient Philosophy, Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

As the participants in our seminar may recall, I am writing a book on the ethics of cooperation in evil. At an earlier meeting of the seminar, I discussed some of the problems contained in the treatment of such cooperation as found in the manuals of Catholic moral theology of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. On that occasion, I expressed agreement with Elizabeth Anscombe’s criticism of that tradition as vitiated by what she calls “Cartesian psychology,” according to which “an intention was an interior act of the mind which could be produced at will.” I also expressed then a preference for an analysis in terms rather of Thomas’s Aquinas’s understanding of the moral virtue of justice. In my presentation, I would like describe how I understand this virtue and how it helps us to determine when a person’s—or indeed an institution’s or a government’s—cooperation is immoral. This will involve an explanation of how justice, according to Thomas, stands in relation to the other virtues, especially prudence. It will also involve an account of how justice, which is a virtue of the will, bears upon the consciences of individuals.

Interview with Sarah Ann Bixler, Summer Session Participant

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This post is part of a series of interviews with our participants for the “Virtue, Happiness, & Self-Transcendence” 2017 Summer Seminar. Sarah Ann Bixler is earning her PhD in practical theology and Christian education at Princeton Theological Seminary. Valerie Wallace is Associate Director, Communications, for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

 

Valerie Wallace: Where are you from?

Sarah Ann Bixler: Raised in southeastern Pennsylvania, I spent my adult life in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia (Harrisonburg) until moving to Princeton, NJ in 2013 to attend graduate school.

 

VW: Tell me about your research.

SAB: Research areas: a) Young people’s experiences in congregations. Having worked for 8 years of my career as a youth minister, I became interested in the diverse faith experiences of young people and how they find meaning through connecting to God within communities of faith. My research seeks to interpret the ways young people “attach” to God, congregations and individuals within the faith community through the lens of the psychological theory of attachment. I believe that understanding attachment to the church from the Aristotelian perspective of a constitutive good provides a theologically robust conception of ecclesiology.
b) Leadership of new church plants and revitalization efforts. As a founding member of a 2010 church plant, I am curious about how the church adapts and thrives in changing cultural contexts yet remains faithful to the gospel it holds dear. The formation of leaders who initiate new congregations, and leaders who guide congregations in decline through deep change and revitalization, is particularly important to me as someone with a professional background in church leadership. I currently have the opportunity to engage this research interest as the assistant to the pioneer missional theologian Dr. Darrell Guder, who directs Princeton Seminary’s new Center for Church Planting and Revitalization.

VW: What are your non-academic interests?

SAB: Outside of my scholarship, I find meaning in spending time with my biological and church family and in the outdoors. My spouse, Benjamin, and I have three children ages 10, 6 and 4. Together we enjoy camping, hiking and bicycling. I am also a jogger. We enjoy gardening and preserving our own produce through canning and freezing. I am also a committed member of a diverse urban church in Philadelphia, Oxford Circle Mennonite Church.

VW: What are you most looking forward to about this summer’s seminar?
SAB: I most look forward to developing my research ideas amid colleagues who will push me to think about topics from new angles, because they have studied particular themes that overlap with those I am exploring. I expect Fr. Brock’s session on friendship, Dr. Frey’s session on self-love and self-transcendence and Dr. McAdam’s work from a psychological perspective hold the most promise for my work. I am interested in working through the nuances of my research interests more through these sessions.

Photos from Jean Porter’s Keynote, “What do we fear? Courage and cowardice in public life”

Moral theologian Jean Porter gave the talk “What should we fear? Courage and cowardice in public life” on Monday, June 5, 2017 at 7pm in the Swift Hall 3rd Floor Lecture Hall at the University of Chicago, followed by a lovely audience Q&A and reception. The talk will be posted on our website once it has been close-captioned.

 

 

 

Abstract from talk:

“Courage is pre-eminently an individual virtue. Yet we can also describe a community or a nation as courageous in its response to a threat or an attack. To take one well-known example, the behavior and attitudes of the English during the Blitz of 1940-41 offers an outstanding example of collective public courage. Somewhat to the surprise of government officials, the civilians subjected to intensive German bombing were not only relatively free of trauma, they were able to carry on with their lives, and even to be cheerful in the face of repeated attacks. The collective courage of the English under the Blitz was of course dependent on the courage of countless individuals, and yet it cannot be reduced to the sum of so many courageous acts and lives. The government promoted, and individuals cooperated in creating a set of practices and expectations that encouraged bravery and perseverance. At this point, England was a brave society, which both drew its courage from individuals and communicated it back to them.In my remarks this evening, I want to examine another example of public courage and public cowardice, which began to develop within the memory of many of us and is still unfolding today.  I am referring to public reactions to the threat of terrorism since the attacks of 9/11.  During and immediately after the attacks themselves, the men and women at the scene, together with the police, fire fighters, and medical personnel, behaved with exemplary bravery in the face of an unimaginable danger.  These clear, unambiguous examples of courage do not call for extended analysis. However, at another level, public reactions to the threat of terrorist attacks present a more complex and ambiguous example.  I want to suggest that we as a nation responded initially to terrorist assaults and the threat of further attacks with another kind of courage, not physical bravery but a firm resolve to hold onto central values, including equality, tolerance, and respect for the rule of law. However, over the past fifteen years, our attitudes as a civic society, as expressed by the actions taken in our name, reflect a growing unwillingness to live with risk and, correspondingly, a willingness to do almost anything to our supposed enemies, in order to secure our own safety.  In other words, we as a nation have moved from courage to a kind of cowardice when it comes to our attitudes towards these threats. I will consider some of the possible causes of this development, and suggest some ways in which we might reclaim our initial courage.”

“Justice is quickly eroded if one is too cowardly to hold firmly to the ideals that are central to a just society” | Interview with Jean Porter

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Jean Porter is a scholar with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life, pictured here at our first working group meeting in December 2015.

Moral theologian Jean Porter (University of Notre Dame) will give the talk “What should we fear? Courage and cowardice in public life” on Monday, June 5, 2017 at 7pm in the Swift Hall 3rd Floor Lecture Hall at the University of Chicago. An audience Q & A will be followed by a reception in the Swift Hall Common Room. This talk is free and open to the public. Registration is required.

The talk and Q&A will be live-streamed at 7pm central time. For more information and to RSVP, go to https://virtue.uchicago.edu/porter

Amichai Amit is a PhD student in philosophy at the University of Chicago and a graduate assistant for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.



Amichai Amit: Courage is often considered a virtue most pertinent to times of crises and especially to actual battle. What is the importance of courage in day-to-day public life? 
Jean Porter: You are quite right, and Aquinas would in fact agree with this, with some qualifications.  Courage is the virtue through which someone firmly holds onto rational and spiritual values in the face of danger, especially the danger of death. As such, it is clearly exemplified by the willingness to face death on the battlefield in defense of the common good. It might seem that courage has little relevance to our day to day lives, which are so safe and secure. And yet, on reflection, how safe are we, and even more to the point, how safe do we feel? In my talk, I focus especially on public attitudes towards the threat of terrorism, and I argue that we are challenged to hold onto certain ideals — equality, tolerance, respect for rule of law — even in the face of potentially lethal attacks. You might say that in certain ways, we are a society in crisis, although it is hard to say whether at this point this crisis reflects actual dangers, or stems from our perceptions of the world.
AA: Is there any difference between courage in the private realm and courage in public life?
JP: The differences would be circumstantial.  Actually, in my talk I will focus on the courage of the community as such, acknowledging that courage at this level is dependent on the courage of many individuals, but assuming nonetheless that it makes sense to speak of a community or a nation as courageous. the parade example would be the courage of the British people during the Blitz, and I claim that the American people displayed courage in the immediate retractions to the 9/11 attacks.
AA: One may think that in a well-ordered society, one in which law and bureaucracy are in good order, courage is required only in times of crises and when the social and legal systems falter. What do you think about this view? 
JP: I think it is critically important for any large-scale, complex society to have a legal system and bureaucratic structures in good working order. These are not only requirements for efficient functioning, they are also the institutional embodiments of ideals of equality and freedom. To put this in medieval terms, they are the preconditions for political rule, in contrast to a kind of dominion that reduces subjects to a servile statues.  that being said, however, formal structures are not enough — they must also be defended and interpreted by individuals who are committed to the rules precisely as embodiments of  moral ideals, and are committed to interpreting them accordingly. Recent experience clearly indicates that formal structures, to say nothing of tacit norms of civility and discourse, are no match for malice and stupidity.
AA: (In relation to the previous question): What are the relation between justice and courage?
JP:  Like all good Thomists, I affirm the connection of the virtues, and therefore believe that true courage presupposes a disposition towards justice. Perhaps more to the point, justice is quickly eroded if one is too cowardly to hold firmly to the ideals that are central to a just society. Again, I think our experience confirms this.
AA: Do you think courage is a virtue especially needed in contemporary public life? Are there any characteristics of our times that render courage more crucial than in past times? 

JP:  I don’t know that I would say it is more necessary, but we are perhaps faced with a distinctive set of challenges. The dangers that we face are in one sense ongoing, but they tend to be expressed in episodic bursts of violence, rather than through continued onslaughts.  This situation encourages either paranoia or complacency, and we see both in public life.
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AA: Aristotle defined courage as the mean between rashness and cowardice. Your talk focuses on courage and cowardice, but not rashness. Do you think rashness is less crucial when it comes to the public sphere? 

JP:  Actually, I do talk about recklessness, which I argue only makes fear worse in the long run.

For more information and to RSVP for “What should we fear? Courage and cowardice in public life,” go to https://virtue.uchicago.edu/porter

“What should we fear? Courage and cowardice in public life”

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Moral theologian Jean Porter (University of Notre Dame) will give the talk “What should we fear? Courage and cowardice in public life” on Monday, June 5, 2017 at 7pm in the Swift Hall 3rd Floor Lecture Hall at the University of Chicago. An audience Q & A will be followed by a reception in the Swift Hall Common Room. This talk is free and open to the public. Registration is required.

The talk and Q&A will be live-streamed at 7pm central time. For more information and to RSVP, go to https://virtue.uchicago.edu/porter

Here is the abstract for her talk:

 

Courage is pre-eminently an individual virtue. Yet we can also describe a community or a nation as courageous in its response to a threat or an attack. To take one well-known example, the behavior and attitudes of the English during the Blitz of 1940-41 offers an outstanding example of collective public courage. Somewhat to the surprise of government officials, the civilians subjected to intensive German bombing were not only relatively free of trauma, they were able to carry on with their lives, and even to be cheerful in the face of repeated attacks. The collective courage of the English under the Blitz was of course dependent on the courage of countless individuals, and yet it cannot be reduced to the sum of so many courageous acts and lives. The government promoted, and individuals cooperated in creating a set of practices and expectations that encouraged bravery and perseverance. At this point, England was a brave society, which both drew its courage from individuals and communicated it back to them.In my remarks this evening, I want to examine another example of public courage and public cowardice, which began to develop within the memory of many of us and is still unfolding today.  I am referring to public reactions to the threat of terrorism since the attacks of 9/11.  During and immediately after the attacks themselves, the men and women at the scene, together with the police, fire fighters, and medical personnel, behaved with exemplary bravery in the face of an unimaginable danger.  These clear, unambiguous examples of courage do not call for extended analysis. However, at another level, public reactions to the threat of terrorist attacks present a more complex and ambiguous example.  I want to suggest that we as a nation responded initially to terrorist assaults and the threat of further attacks with another kind of courage, not physical bravery but a firm resolve to hold onto central values, including equality, tolerance, and respect for the rule of law. However, over the past fifteen years, our attitudes as a civic society, as expressed by the actions taken in our name, reflect a growing unwillingness to live with risk and, correspondingly, a willingness to do almost anything to our supposed enemies, in order to secure our own safety.  In other words, we as a nation have moved from courage to a kind of cowardice when it comes to our attitudes towards these threats. I will consider some of the possible causes of this development, and suggest some ways in which we might reclaim our initial courage.