Interview: Fr. Stephen Brock | “Everyone needs at least a share in the light of wisdom”

Brock Aquinas Spark

Amichai Amit, PhD student in philosophy at the University of Chicago interviewed Philosopher Fr. Stephen Brock, who will give the public talk “Aquinas and the Life of the Mind” on May 12 at 4pm in Harper 140. Visit https://virtue.uchicago.edu/brock for more information, to register (required), and to live-stream.

 

Amichai Amit: What is the life of the mind? What characterizes the kind contemplation that constitutes this kind of life?

Fr. Stephen Brock: Aquinas regards mind, or intellect, as the very highest form of life.  What distinguishes living beings, at any level, from inanimate things, is that they are intrinsically active.  In some way or another they act on their own, from out of themselves.  They are self-activating.  Even in a plant, the workings of its parts contribute to each other, to the plant’s survival and development as a whole, and to its interactions with its surroundings.  Animals, by their perceptions of things and the desires that result, initiate their own movements and control their interactions with things.  But those that have intellect are agents of their activities to an especially high degree, because they can grasp, and assess, and decide upon, the very purposes or goals that they act for.  It is up to them to dedicate themselves to one kind of activity or another, to adopt their own “way of life.”  In a word, they are free.  They are most alive, because their activities are their own to determine.  They are their own masters; not in every way, of course, or without any conditions, but nevertheless in a very real sense.  And this is because they have intellect, by which they can stand back and see the big picture.  They can take stock of things, and of themselves, and of their relations to things and to each other, and of the various possibilities for activity that are available to them.

 

Usually, I suppose, if people speak of contemplation at all, it is in contrast to action.  Thinking is one thing; doing is another.  But thinking is certainly an activity in which people can decide to engage.  It can even be one to which people dedicate themselves, what they live for.  I am speaking the kind of thinking whose aim is simply to understand things, to know what they are and why.  Aristotle famously says that all humans desire to know.  When we confront something that we do not understand, we wonder about it; and when we come to understand it, that itself gives us satisfaction, whether or not the understanding is useful for some other purpose that we might have.  In some people the desire for understanding is especially strong, and it can extend very far, even to the desire to understand the whole of reality, as far as our poor minds are capable of that.  That is the desire for wisdom; that is philosophy.  It is very difficult.  But Aquinas took to himself a saying of Aristotle’s, that to catch even a glimpse of the truth about the largest and highest things is more delightful than to understand through and through some smaller, less important thing.

 

Aquinas also thought that those who engage in contemplation benefit not only themselves but also all of society.  For, even if not everyone has the taste or the aptitude for philosophy, everyone does need at least a share in the light of wisdom.  We all need at least some grasp of the truth about the world and our role in it.  We all know that we exist as parts of something larger than ourselves.  We cannot really be the masters of our lives if we do not have a clear idea of how we fit into the grand scheme of things.

Fr. Stephen Brock is the 2017 Visiting Scholar with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life and the Department of Philosophy at the University of Chicago.

AA: Aristotle, famously, held that the life of contemplation is the happiest life. While many of Aristotle’s notions about virtue and happiness remain appealing to contemporary readers, the notion of contemplative life as happy (and virtuous) may be less immediately clear. Can you explain in a few words in what sense contemplative life is happy, virtuous and meaningful?

SB: It is obvious that moral virtue enhances that freedom of ours, that self-mastery.  It frees us from the waywardness of our passions, from our self-centeredness, from our distractedness, from our thoughtlessness.  But Aristotle also insisted on there being such a thing as intellectual virtue—the cultivation of our minds, mastery over our very thoughts and beliefs, the habit of thinking well and truly about things.  Actually he identified a variety of such habits.  But the primary one, the one that in a way rules over all the others and that perfects and satisfies the mind most of all, is wisdom.  However, I think it is clear that the main reason why he finds the pursuit of wisdom the most satisfying and the most meaningful of all pursuits is that he is sure that it brings us into contact with realities that are even better than us — living realities whose lives are even more perfect, even happier, than ours can be.  He is sure that there are divine beings and that we can know some truth about them.  In one passage he even identifies this as the true purpose of our lives, where their deepest meaning lies: in knowing and serving God.  In doing that, he judges, we even achieve something of a share in the divine happiness.  I think it is clear that if he had thought there were no divine beings, he would have found considerably less value and satisfaction in philosophical contemplation.

 

AA: In what way (if any), does Aquinas’ conception of ‘the life of the mind’ different from the Aristotelian one? To what extent is this difference inhere in Aquinas’ theology? How relevant is Aquinas’ account of ‘the life of the mind’ to non-Christians in general and in particular to secular readers?

SB: Aquinas endorses Aristotle’s conception very strongly.  But yes, his own conception also differs from it, and this is because of his theological beliefs.  He is convinced that the God whom Aristotle glimpsed, admired, and served from afar, has spoken directly to us, sought to teach us about Himself, and even offered us the possibility of sharing in the life of His mind, in an amazingly intimate and personal way, as His children and His friends.  And so for Aquinas the life of contemplation is above all meditation on the Word of God.  But he thinks that philosophy – good, sound philosophy, pursued according to its own demands – can be very useful in that meditation.

 

I am not sure what to say about how relevant his account is to non-Christians and to secular readers. It seems to me that for him, the question of how relevant it is to them would really be the question of how relevant it is to his Master’s desire that they come to know Him, how it might serve to open their minds to His light.  Aquinas would think that this is what people need most, whether they realize it or not.

 

AA: How relevant, do you think, is the notion of life of contemplation to contemporary life? 

SB: Perhaps we have lost the sense of the “wonderfulness” of things, stifled that natural desire to understand.  The screen dazzles, but it does not produce wonder; if anything it hypnotizes.  That is slavery.  Perhaps this is because we have lost contact with the natural world.  It is fascinating even to look at, and even more fascinating to understand.  The mind tires of seeing the same thing on the screen every day; not of seeing the same natural things.

 

I think contemplation is all the more relevant today, all the more urgent, for being so widely ignored.

Announcing the Participants for our 2017 Summer Seminar, “Virtue, Happiness, & Self-Transcendence”

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We’re delighted to share the list of participants for our 2017 Summer Seminar, “Virtue, Happiness, and Self-Transcendence“, who hail from all corners of the globe and will convene at the University of Chicago for a week this June. These young researchers will participate in intensive workshop sessions with our faculty to deepen their own research  through conversations with a network of fellow collaborators in the areas of Philosophy, Psychology, and Theology/Religious Studies.

The accepted participants for the 2017 Summer Seminar, “Virtue, Happiness, & Self-Transcendence” are:

Alberto Arruda, University of Lisbon
Samuel Baker, University of South Alabama
Maureen Bielinski, University of St. Thomas, TX
Sarah Bixler, Princeton Theological Seminary
Andrew Christy, Texas A&M University
Ellen Dulaney, DePaul University
Marta Faria, Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome
Andrew Flynn, University of California – Los Angeles
Madison Gilbertson, Fuller Graduate School of Psychology
Craig Iffland, University of Notre Dame
Anne Jeffrey, University of South Alabama
Jane Klinger, University of Waterloo
David McPherson, Creighton University
Samantha Mendez, University of the Philippines- Diliman
Elise Murray, Tufts University
Omowumi Ogunyemi, Institute of humanities of the Pan-Atlantic University, Lagos
Cabrini Pak, The Catholic University of America
Carissa Phillips-Garrett, Rice University
Timothy Reilly, University of Notre Dame
James Dominic Rooney, Saint Louis University
Jennifer Rothschild, University of Florida
Theresa Smart, University of Notre Dame
Joseph Stenberg, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
Sanaz Talaifar, University of Texas at Austin
Andrea Yetzer, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs

Interview with Zack Loveless, our new graduate research assistant

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Photo by Marc Monaghan
Where are you from?
I am from Helena, Alabama.
Tell us about your research.
My research focuses on accounts of right action grounded in a picture of what constitutes being a good person. My basic picture is that an act is right if there is nothing specifically wrong with it: an act is right if it is not contrary to any virtue. This account allows us to preserve some of the hallmarks of an ethics of virtue (like the breakdown of a divide between moral and non-moral practical concerns) while preserving key moral intuitions (such as the existence of acts it is as such wrong to perform or that an any situation many courses of action will be right).
I became interested in the Virtue project for two related reasons. First, I am interested in how we incorporate into a life of virtue space for a pursuit of our own projects, amusements and leisure. Second, I am interested in attempts to explain some trait being a virtue to its role in a meaningful or happy life.
What do you like to do outside of academia?
When I am not pursuing my academic interests, I am probably watching football, listening to music or cooking.

Zack Loveless is a Ph.D. student in philosophy at the University of Chicago, and a graduate assistant with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Universal Human Virtues Found in Arabic Literature

These remarks correspond to our latest Virtue Talk podcast with Tahera Qutbuddin, which you can listen to here.

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“Qur’an with “tassbeh”” – photo by Doctor Yuri

I grew up in Mumbai, India, studied Arabic at Ayn Shams University in Cairo, Egypt, and came to Harvard University in the US for my PhD, which I completed in 1999. After that, I taught for a year at Yale University, then for two years at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. In 2002, I joined the University of Chicago, where I’m currently Associate Professor of Arabic Literature in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC). At the University of Chicago, I’m also affiliated with the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES), the Committee on South Asian Studies (COSAS), and the Divinity School. And for the past six years, I’ve chaired a non-traditional major in the College named Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities (IS-Hum).

My work centers on classical Arabic literature. I have a deep interest in literary materials of the early Islamic period that preach virtue, which is my connection with the Virtues group of scholars. Overall, my scholarship focuses on intersections of the literary, the religious, and the political in classical Arabic poetry and prose. My areas of research are classical Arabic oratory and Islamic preaching (khutba); the Quran, traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, and the sermons and sayings of the first Shia imam and fourth Sunni caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib; and Fatimid-Tayyibi history and literature (the Fatimids were a Shia dynasty who ruled North Africa and Egypt from the 10th through the 12th centuries, and the Tayyibis are a Muslim denomination in Yemen and India, who look to the Fatimid legacy). I’ve also worked on Arabic in India.

My first journal article, which I published in 1995 while I was a graduate student at Harvard, was titled “Healing the Soul: Perspectives of Medieval Muslim Writers.” I discussed the ideas of certain key scholars in the Islamic tradition who used the metaphor of the physician and healing to promote virtue and faith. I found that the earliest accounts were based in either Greek ethics or the Qur’an, and the Greek aspects were rendered over three centuries into an Islamic matrix.

In my first monograph—published by Brill in 2005 titled Al-Mu’ayyad al-Shirazi and Fatimid Da’wa Poetry: A Case of Commitment in Classical Arabic Literature—I combined material and approaches from several disciplines to analyze the poetry of the 11th century scholar, al-Muʾayyad al-Shīrāzī, who was chief missionary for the Fatimid caliphs of Egypt. Al-Mu’ayyad is acknowledged as a giant in the Fatimid philosophical tradition, but none had worked on his poetry before. Because it is underpinned by esoteric doctrine, its true significance cannot be decoded without careful perusal of its philosophy and history. I found and used manuscripts of his poetry housed in private collections in India, and I also used an eclectic package of literary, historical, and theological primary sources, many of them also in manuscript form. I argued that al-Muʾayyad flew in the face of the rival Abbasid court’s conventional panegyric to create a new, very personal, “committed” form of Arabic poetry, with themes, imagery, and audiences consonant with his religio-political cause.

My currently ongoing monograph project is tentatively titled Classical Arabic Oratory: Religion, Politics and Orality-Based Aesthetics of Public Address in the Early Islamic World, for which I’m honored to have been awarded fellowships by the Carnegie Corporation and the American Council of Learned Societies. In the 7th and 8th centuries AD, oration was a crucial piece of the Arabian literary landscape, reigning supreme as its preeminent genre of prose. It was an integral component of pre-Islamic and early Islamic leadership, and it also had significant political, military and religious functions. Its themes and aesthetics had enormous influence on subsequent artistic prose. Little has come forth on the subject, due to substantial challenges posed by an archaic lexicon (these are hard texts to crack!), a vast array of sources, and the sticky question of dating. But I believe an approach sensitive to its oral underpinnings can meaningfully delineate key parameters of the genre. I’m analyzing the texts and contexts of these earliest Arabic speeches and sermons, and I hope to construct thereby the first comprehensive theory of classical Arabic oratory.

In the past five years, much of my intellectual energy has been directed to a new publication series titled “Library of Arabic Literature,” and it has been a joy and a privilege to be part of this emerging venture. In 2010, I was invited to its newly-forming Editorial Board, whose mandate is to produce facing-page Arabic editions and English translations of significant works of Arabic literature, with an emphasis on the 7th to 19th centuries, encompassing a wide range of genres, including poetry, religion, philosophy, law, science, and history. The project is supported by a grant from the New York University Abu Dhabi Institute, and its volumes are published by NYU Press. Its Editorial Board comprises a team of Arabic/Islamic professors at educational institutions in the US and UK. We meet twice a year in New York and Abu Dhabi, and in the first five years, we have produced a resounding 35 volumes. In 2015, our grant was renewed for another five years, and in this second phase we aim to bring out an additional 40 volumes.

Many of the really important texts of early Islamic literature remain in manuscript form, and many have not been translated into English, or have been translated in less than lucid renderings. In addition to my analytical research work, I’m also committed to making these masterpieces of Arabic literature available in reliable editions and engaging translations, especially those among them that promote virtue and contemplation.

In this context, I edited and translated a volume of Sayings, Sermons, and Teachings of Ali ibn Abi Talib, whom I mentioned before, who was the cousin and son in law of the prophet Muhammad, and the first Shia imam and the fourth Sunni caliph. (Library of Arabic Literature, NYU Press, 2013). The volume was compiled by al-Quda’i, who was a judge in medieval Cairo. The book is titled A Treasury of Virtues, and in beautiful desert metaphors and brilliantly pithy Arabic, it enjoins universal human virtues such as justice, wisdom, and kindness, presenting them in an Islamic and Quranic framework. For example, “ The best words are backed by deeds” “Oppressing the weak is the worst oppression” “Knowledge is a noble legacy” “The true worth of a man is measured by the good he does” “There is no treasure richer than contentment” “A just leader is better than abundant rainfall.”

I’ve recently completed editing and translating another volume for the series, this one being a compilation of the ethical and doctrinal sayings of the prophet Muhammad titled Light in the Heavens, by the same compiler, al-Quda’i. In a happy coincidence, its tqinstagram.pngrelease date is today, November 8. The prophet Muḥammad (d. 632) is regarded by Muslims as God’s messenger to humankind. In addition to God’s words—the Qurʾan—which he conveyed over the course of his life as it was revealed to him, Muḥammad’s own words—called hadith—have a very special place in the lives of Muslims. They wield an authority second only to the Qurʾan and are cited by Muslims as testimonial texts in a wide array of religious, scholarly and popular literature—such as liturgy, exegesis, jurisprudence, oration, poetry, linguistics and more. Preachers, politicians and scholars rely on hadith to establish the truth of their positions, and lay people cite them to each other in their daily lives. These hadith disclose the ethos of the earliest period of Islam, the culture and society of 7th century Arabia. Since they also form an integral part of the Muslim psyche, they reveal the values and thinking of the medieval and modern Muslim community. Most importantly, they provide a direct window into the inspired vision of one of the most influential humans in history. These are a few sample hadith from the volume, which list traits that God loves: “God loves gentleness in everything,” “God is beautiful and loves beauty,” “God loves those who beseech him,” “God loves those who are virtuous, humble, and pious,” “God loves the believer who makes an honest living,” “God loves the grieving heart”.

Among the recent articles I’ve published, some are on Ali’s preaching. In one recent article I examine Ali’s melding of core Islamic teachings of the Quran enjoining piety and good works, with the oral, nature-based cultural ethos of seventh-century Arabia. Another recent article—and this is the one I shared with the Virtue scholars’ group in December—looks at Ali’s contemplations on this world and the hereafter in the context of his life and times. I argue that Ali encourages his followers to enjoy a happy life on earth and be grateful for God’s innumerable blessings, yet always keep preparing for the imminent hereafter, by cultivating virtuous traits and performing virtuous deeds. I’d like to read out to you a short excerpt from one of his sermons from this article:

O you who reproach this world while being so willingly deceived by her deceptions and tricked by her falsehoods! Do you choose to be deceived by her yet censure her? Should you be accusing her, or should she be accusing you?! When did she lure you or deceive? Was it by her destruction of your father and grandfather and great grandfather through decay? Or by her consigning your mother and grandmother and great grandmother to the earth? How carefully did your palms tend them! How tenderly did your hands nurse them! Hoping against hope for a cure, begging physician after physician for a medicament. On that fateful morning, your medicines did not suffice them, your weeping did not help, and your apprehension was of no benefit. Your appeal remained unanswered, and you could not push death away from them although you applied all your strength. By this, the world warned you of your own approaching end. She illustrated by their death your own.

Indeed, this world is a house of truth for whomsoever stays true to her, a house of wellbeing for whomsoever understands her, a house of riches for whomsoever gathers her provisions, a house of counsel for whomsoever takes her advice. She is a mosque for God’s loved ones, a place where God’s angels pray, where God’s revelation alights, where God’s saints transact, earning his mercy and profiting paradise.

In addition to the publications I’ve talked about, I always look to avail of opportunities to reach outside the ivory tower, and have lectured over the years on general topics related to Islamic history and Arabic literature, particularly on topics that promote goodwill among the human family. Two years ago, I gave a talk on “Imam Ali’s Preaching of Peace and Pluralism” at a UNESCO conference in Paris organized by its Iraq office titled “The contribution of Ali ibn Abi Talib’s Thought to a Culture of Peace and Intercultural Dialogue.” Just recently in September of this year I helped organize a conference in Kolkata, India, on exemplars of communal harmony in pre- and post-Independence India, that was hosted jointly by my father’s educational foundation Qutbi Jubilee Scholarship Program (QJSP) and the University of Calcutta, and was attended by the Vice Chancellor of the University of Calcutta, and the West Bengal Minister for Higher Education, and widely covered by the local media.

I’m very pleased to be part of the Templeton Foundation’s project Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life. I’m grateful to the Templeton Foundation for funding it, and to Candace Vogler for inviting me to participate. This has been a wonderful opportunity for me to expand my horizons, and bring my work into conversation with the major Western philosophical and theological traditions. I’ve especially enjoyed the practical perspectives of psychology and economics brought by the social scientists in the group on questions of virtue and happiness. It’s been a privilege to listen to these amazing scholars.

I’ve found many parallels with the classical Islamic traditions I work with, and hope to make use of these new insights and apply them to my own work. For example, many of the group’s scholars work on Thomas Aquinas, and the harmony of faith and reason that is expressed in his teachings resonates with several schools of Islamic thought, especially one that I work with, the Fatimid-Ismaili school. Others work on Aristotle, and his cardinal virtues of justice, temperance, wisdom, and courage are strongly reflected in the early Islamic aphoristic material, and in the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad and Imam Ali. The material my colleagues on the Virtue Scholars team work on is itself fascinating, and the questions and methodologies they bring to bear on it are equally illuminating.

I’m also happy to have the opportunity to present some Islamic approaches to virtue, to these scholars who may not have engaged with the Islamic tradition in any depth before.

A significant prompt that has come out of this workshop for me is a renewed emphasis on the importance of harnessing ideas to promote virtue and happiness on the ground. This is academic work, but it’s also very personal. The research on the hows and whys of a meaningful life discussed at the workshop is really valuable. For me, the natural corollary to the expert analysis is how to translate this information into becoming a better human being myself, and to work toward promoting kindness and virtue in the many communities I’m part of. The research, both individual and collaborative is important. But it’s equally important to think about how to use that practically to be a nice, kind person oneself, and to promote niceness and kindness among the people we live. I’m delighted to be part of this ambitious project, and I hope that together we can make a difference, and offer some contribution to a better and more peaceful world.


Tahera Qutbuddin is Associate Professor of Arabic Literature at the University of Chicago and Scholar with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Now accepting applications: “Virtue, Happiness, & Self-Transcendence” Summer Seminar 2017

Chicago Cultural Center Chandelier and Tiffany Dome
Photo by Chris Smith.

Summer Seminar 2017: “Virtue, Happiness, and Self-transcendence”

June 18 (arrive) – 23, 2017

University of Chicago, Hyde Park campus

The 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.

The Seminar is highly intensive, meeting twice a day for one week and continues in conversations informally over meals.

Participants are housed on the University of Chicago campus and eat communally in a nearby dining hall.

The 2017 seminar is supported by  a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation and our institutional partner the Hyde Park Institute, and includes lodging, meals, tuition, and reimbursement up to $500  for travel. Accepted participants are asked to pay a $200 registration fee.

Click here for more information, including faculty, topics, and how to apply.

Photos: “Being Wise & Being Good: A Conversation” with Howard Nusbaum and Candace Vogler

Photos from our June 6, 2016 Keynote to our Working Group Meeting. “Being Wise & Being Good: A Conversation” with Howard Nusbuam and Candace Vogler was held in beautiful Swift Hall’s 3rd Floor Lecture Hall with a reception in the Common Room. Over 150 turned out! More photos are up on our Flickr album.

Coming soon: the video!