23 questions our scholars are asking


The guiding idea of our research is that virtue is the cultivation of a self-transcendent orientation that is necessary for deep happiness and a sense of meaning in one’s life. Our project constructs self-transcendence through collaborative scholarly work in 3 fields: Religious Studies & Theology, Empirical Psychology, and Philosophy.

One key innovation of our project is that rather than bringing independently conceived and executed projects into conversation at large conferences, our scholars will investigate their topics together.

Here are some of the questions many of our scholars will investigate over the course of this 28-month project:

3877063268Religious Studies & Theology

How are our ideas about what it means for Christ to become human shaped and influenced by the divine personhood of Christ?
     – Michael Gorman (Catholic University of America)

What is the relationship between Aquinas’ idea of human flourishing—and its integral component of happiness—and academic enterprise?
– Reinhard Huetter (Duke University)

What is the relationship, according to Thomas Aquinas, between the virtues we acquire on our own and virtues given to us by God?
– Angela Knobel (Catholic University of America)

How does Aquinas understand the relationship between the moral emotions and justice?
     – Jean Porter (Notre Dame University)

How does classical Arabic oratory influence contemporary preachers and politicians?
     – Tahera Qutbuddin (University of Chicago)

Should one cultivate the virtue of humility, or is it a “weak” virtue, encouraging dependence and obedience?
– David Shatz (Yeshiva University)

How do prophecy and martyrdom focus the person on that which is greater than the self?
– Josef Stern (University of Chicago)

What is the relationship between the human moral condition and the condition of the environment?
     – Mari Stuart (University of South Carolina)

Does the human search for truth also make someone open to religious questions?
– Fr. Thomas Joseph White (Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception)


Empirical Psychology

How do people understand virtue, happiness, and the meaning of life when they are stretched thin by work and family obligations?
Marc Berman (University of Chicago)

What influence does a child’s early ideas of virtue have on the understanding of purposeful and socially just acts across her lifetime?
    – Katherine Kinzler (Cornell University)

Can the so-called negative emotions actually lead us to happiness?
– Heather C. Lench (Texas A&M University)

Why are some generative narratives involving commitment to future generations culturally favored over others?
     – Dan McAdams (Northwestern University)

Are we fixed adults with little capacity to change, or are we beings who can use experience to increase wisdom and human flourishing?
– Howard Nusbaum (University of Chicago)

Can we measure happiness and meaning empirically?
– Paul Wong (Emeritus, Trent University)

3877093547       Philosophy

What virtues shape aesthetic inspiration and the actions that follow from it?
– Talbot Brewer (University of Virginia)

What can poetry teach us about spirituality?
     – David Carr (Professor Emeritus, University of Edinburgh)

Should intention factor into the way we look at those who cooperate in evil?
    – Fr. Kevin Flannery (Pontifical University Gregorian)

How does happiness operate as the constitutive aim of human life?
– Jennifer A. Frey (University of South Carolina)

What are the norms inherent in the ethical study of human behavior?
     – John Haldane (Baylor University and St. Andrews University)

How do the ways that we learn not to wrong someone influence our understanding of ourselves, each other, and the social context we share?
     – Matthias Haase (University of Leipzig)

How does awe help us understand the human capacity for moral change?
– Kristján Kristjánsson (University of Birmingham)

How do ordinary people become virtuous, and how does virtue shape them?
– Nancy Snow (University of Oklahoma)

By fostering intensive collaboration between philosophers, religious thinkers, and psychologists, we will investigate whether self-transcendence helps to make ordinary cultivation and exercise of virtue a source of deep happiness and meaning in human life.

For more information about our scholars, and the topics they’ll discuss at our December Working Group Meetings, visit our website here.

Continue reading “23 questions our scholars are asking”

Why Aquinas? Part 1 of 2

Why Aquinas? Part 1 of 2

This is the first in a series of posts that will address a question I am frequently asked by academics (especially philosophers), students, and the curious at large: Why read and write about Aquinas in a contemporary theoretical context? Or, more pointedly, How can a Medieval Scholastic theologian be relevant to our secular culture and academy? It’s a great question and I’ll attempt to explain my own reasons, though I’ll also state up front that I’m not sure whether it’s any weirder or more problematic to turn to the thought of a Medieval friar than it is to turn to the thought of the Ancient Greeks. In either case, one is attracted to those truths that appear to transcend the remote and alien cultures in which they were first articulated.

Since Aquinas–unlike Aristotle–is not frequently taught in philosophy departments in a serious way, it’s best to begin my explanation with a prior and more pressing question: Who is Aquinas?

Thomas Aquinas was born into a noble and politically influential family sometime between 1224 and 1226 in what is now Southern Italy (his father was Landulph, Count of Aquino; hence the name Aquinas). At five Aquinas was sent by his family to study at the Monastery of Monte Cassino, in the hopes that an education there would lead to a prominent ecclesiastical appointment. About ten years later, however, Aquinas’s family has him leave the monastery to attend the first “state” university of the period, the University of Naples, probably in the hope that he will serve the Emperor Frederick II in some official capacity. In Naples Aquinas receives a traditional liberal arts education, and is introduced for the first time to the writings of Aristotle. He also gets mixed up with some radicals, in particular the newly founded mendicant preachers, the Dominicans (calling them radicals is not in the least extreme; to the establishment classes, they were thought to be ridiculous fools at best, demented and dangerous heretics at worst). The Dominicans, like the Franciscans, promoted a way of life that combined apostolic poverty and direct contact with ordinary people; such a choice of life stood in stark contrast to the wealthy and sheltered monastic life at Monte Cassino. For the Dominicans the life of study was especially important, as they charged themselves with the task of preaching the faith, including the idea that the life of virtue is necessary for happiness.

At about 18 or 19 Thomas informs his parents that he intends to become an itinerant, “begging friar.” In a contemporary American context, it would be like the son of a prominent conservative politician turning down a powerful internship in DC in order to start up his own organic homestead in the woods. His parents were obviously none too pleased with this turn of events. In fact, they basically kidnapped Thomas on his way to Paris and put him under house arrest in the hope that he would come to his senses. But Thomas would not relent, and eventually in 1245 his family allows him to study in Paris at a Dominican convent. It is here that he first meets his famous teacher, Albert the Great, a fellow admirer of Aristotle.

For the rest of his life Aquinas dedicates most of his efforts to tackling the big questions in human life: what we ought to believe (and why) and how we ought to live (and why). In the context of the University of Paris where he began his career, Aquinas is held in suspicion by many of his colleagues, for two main reasons: (1) his appropriation of and fondness for Aristotle, which alarmed theological conservatives and (2) his status as a mendicant friar. Indeed, his inaugural lecture was boycotted by many prominent faculty. The Dominicans soon sent Aquinas to work directly with young friars in various cities in Italy, and his university career only lasted for seven years.

In 1274 Aquinas dies on his way to advise at the Second Council of Lyons. Shortly before his death he had stopped writing altogether (depending on the source, one reads he either had a nervous breakdown or a mystical vision; in either case he saw no point in writing any more, and he left his great Summa Theologiae unfinished). After his death, parts of Aquinas’s writings are condemned as heretical by the Bishop of Paris, and his work was, for a time, basically ignored. Eventually, however, he would become one of the most influential thinkers in the West. Doubtless nothing would have surprised the humble friar more than his intellectual legacy and our contemporary perception of him as an “establishment” figure. There was little evidence in his own time that this would be his fate.

In my next post, I will begin to discuss how Aquinas’s life impacts his thought about virtue and human nature, and why Aquinas is so central to our own investigation into these topics.

Why Aquinas? Part 2 of 2

Jennifer A. Frey is a Principal Investigator with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life, and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina.

What is virtue?

Bond Chapel in Winter - photo by Chris Smith
Bond Chapel in Winter – photo by Chris Smith

‘Vir,’ the Latin root for the term, links to the term for the male organ–as in ‘virile’–and was used to denote a strength of some sort.

In contemporary philosophy and religious studies, a virtue is a character trait, not a personality trait.  Social scientists sometimes treat character traits such as virtues as features of personality, but some scholars have recently begun working on the necessity of elucidating the strict separation of work on personality from work on character.  ‘Character’ is a developed, stable way of taking in what you get from the world, feeling/emotion/response to others, and action.  For example, kind people don’t just help people who fall down on the ground in front of them, although they normally WILL do that; kind people also find instances and reports of cruelty painful, look for ways to make others’ lives go more smoothly, enjoy it when things go well for others, and try to avoid injuring people.  Kind people notice the kinds of things that injure or could injure others.  Kind people also are willing to do unpleasant things for the sake of helping others, and may even be willing to do dangerous things to help others.  That is plain old virtue at work.  Kindness may start when caretakers invite a child to think how she would feel if someone else did/said that thing (that she just did/said) to her.

There are two sorts of virtues–strengths–that our philosophers and religious thinkers have studied. These two are acquired virtue and infused virtue.

An acquired virtue is a strength of character that develops by doing the things one ought to do–e.g., telling the truth, paying your bills, looking after the health and well being of those who depend on you.  Children begin to develop proto-virtues by obeying adults and gradually stopping doing the kinds of things that make it really hard to look after groups of children–hitting, lying, being selfish with toys or crayons, etc. Acquired virtues become habitual, and help direct the person towards good, but like any habit, they can also be broken, become infrequently used, or go entirely absent.

An infused virtue, on the other hand, is one given to you, and not one you can acquire. In Christian theology, infused virtues are given to us by God. Virtues that Catholic theologians always consider to be infused include faith, hope, and charity. Thomas Aquinas believed that infused virtues such as these prepare us for union with God. Instead of becoming confused, losing wisdom, and going astray–as we are wont to do–we are kept on track by our infused virtues, and our whole natures are better ordered towards the pursuit of what is best and most just, making us right with ourselves, each other, and God.

Aquinas thinks that he finds in Aristotle the idea that even plain old virtue is directed to the common good–basically, that my virtues (if I have any) are at least as likely to benefit others as they are to benefit me, and that the benefit to others is genuine benefit–I help contribute to GOOD ways of producing and reproducing the GOOD aspects of the social world we share.  Although it is not at all clear that this view comes from Aristotle, what IS clear is that virtue is hard to cultivate and puts people at risk in various ways.  Testifying truthfully in court about gang activity in my neighborhood can make me a target for bad stuff, for example.  It is not nearly as easy to be kind to angry or frightened and unpleasant people as it is to be kind to puppies, well-behaved children, and pleasant adults.  But it is often the unpleasant living things that need kindness.

Virtue, then, is not an attitude, although attitudes often go along with virtue.  It is not a belief system or a kind of desire or a kind of feeling/emotion, although virtue shapes thoughts and feelings.  It is closer to a stable, cultivated way of noticing what’s going on and responding to what’s going on (inwardly and through one’s actions) aimed at supporting, enabling, or doing actual good.  On the traditional account, even though there are distinct virtues, these have to work together if actual good is supposed to be the result.  For instance, it isn’t kindness if I tell you lies in order to make you feel better, even if telling you the truth will likely make both of us feel worse.  It’s not generosity if I offer to drive the getaway car when you guys are set on armed robbery.  Personality traits concern me and my psychology.  Character traits can correct aspects of my personality. For instance, if I tend to be irritable or gullible or petty, virtues like temperance, practical wisdom, and justice can help to correct these flaws in my personality. If I am impulsive, virtue can help bring a measure of thoughtfulness and care to my doings. Basically, virtues help to govern my mind, emotions, will and actions so that I can pursue good without sabotaging my own efforts or impeding myself.

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

The Generative Adult

The Generative Adult
The famous psychoanalytic theorist Erik Erikson defined generativity as an adult’s concern for and commitment to promoting the well-being of future generations.  Generativity involves raising children, of course, but it also encompasses things like teaching, mentoring, activism, leadership, and other prosocial activities aimed at leaving  a positive legacy of the self for future generations.  Erikson argued that generativity (versus stagnation) is the central psychosocial issue of the middle-adult years.  Midlife adults who are able to make positive contributions to future generations should enjoy better psychological health and higher levels of psychosocial development, compared to their less generative counterparts.  But generativity should be good for others, too, as well as for the self, which suggests that generativity is itself a virtue, or that it points to related virtues, such as care and concern for humanity.

My students and I have developed the main psychological measures used today to assess individual differences in generativity.  Many studies link high levels of generativity, as assessed on these measures, to more effective parenting, broader friendship networks, political participation, civic engagement, religious involvement, mental health and well-being, positive personality characteristics, and a host of other positive outcomes in life.  As described in my book, The Redemptive Self:  Stories Americans Live By (2006/2013), highly generative American adults at midlife tend to construe their lives as heroic narratives of redemption, wherein a gifted protagonist journeys forth into a dangerous world and, equipped with moral steadfastness, aims to transform suffering into enhancement.

Image by Otto Steininger, from nytimes.com

Redemptive life narratives serve as a psychological resource for highly generative adults, providing them with the kind of personal story (narrative identity) they often need to persevere in the face of adversity and to keep focused on trying to make a positive difference in the lives of others and in society writ large.  In our current longitudinal study of men and women between the ages of 55 and 65, we are continuing to study the vicissitudes of generativity and redemptive life narratives.

Video: “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life: A Collaboration” presentation and audience Q&A

Here is the video of our Project Launch on October 17, 2015, at the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society, in conjunction with the Division of Humanities’ Humanities Day:
“Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life: a Collaboration” with Jennifer Frey and Candace Vogler.

The lecture is followed by a lively audience Q&A.

Continue reading “Video: “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life: A Collaboration” presentation and audience Q&A”

Recap of our launch event: “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life: A Collaboration” – Humanities Day, 10-17-15

Recap of our launch event: “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life: A Collaboration” – Humanities Day, 10-17-15

It was a capacity crowd at the Neubauer Collegium for the October 17th Chicago Humanities Day project launch for “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life”, a talk led by Jennifer Frey, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina, and Candace Vogler, the David E. and Clara B. Stern Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago. Frey and Vogler spoke for about thirty minutes on the philosophical, religious, and scientific questions framing the project before taking questions from the audience. Right before the presentation, as audience members drifted into the room and both scholars rehearsed their talk, I listened to Vogler rehearse. She uttered a sentence that to my mind perfectly captures the spirit of the larger project. “We are not perfect,” she said.

She continued, “Indeed, at times, we are our own worst enemy. We all operate this way, and even very good people will find themselves messing up. This is not just due to bad luck.”

These are some of the precepts that 13th century philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas held to be true of the human condition, and they reflect his sense that being virtuous is an ongoing project and a journey. But why use the concept of “virtue”? Why be virtuous? Why use Aquinas to think about virtue, rather than Aristotle? What is the relationship between happiness and virtue? How can we measure happiness, or meaning?

During their presentation, “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life: A Collaboration”, Vogler and Frey explained that their research for this project endeavors to pull apart the strands that bind virtue to happiness, and happiness to meaning, emphasizing that Aquinas believed that the truth is out there, but unlike the classical philosopher Aristotle, and unlike many doctrinaire Church fathers, he also believed the truth might take many forms. They noted that Aquinas’ sense of character and innate goodness is much better than that of Aristotle, who tended to have a much more elitist take on virtue. While Aristotle believed that virtue was primarily the province of those males from prominent families brought up to be virtuous, Aquinas believed that anyone might be virtuous, and that virtue was also to be found among women, the poor, and the uneducated. Both Frey and Vogler emphasized that the notion of virtue is important because virtue helps you not get in your own way, or sabotage your life. Human beings have a lot of trouble with balance. We aren’t always attracted to what is good for us. Virtue helps with balance. Virtue is a philosophical term with an emphasis on balance.

We are not perfect.

In short, as both speakers maintained, Aquinas has a much more expansive notion of the virtues that are missing from Aristotle—virtues such as hope, charity, and mercy—and a more diverse picture of moral exemplars than Aristotle could have imagined. Even women(!) could be recognized as mystics and moral beings. Most importantly, Aquinas brings with him the sense that we can learn from a whole range of people and their experiences. And so Aquinas, argued Frey and Vogler, is a good place to begin when we want to ask questions about happiness and meaning in relation to virtue, questions such as:

What kind of happiness comes of virtue?

When and how does cultivating virtue lead to a meaningful life?

When and how does a sound moral center anchor a meaningful life?

Both speakers set about defining “self-transcendence” as one of the project’s key concepts. Noting the difference between people whose lives appear to be successful but who are unhappy and people whose lives may or may not be conventionally “successful” but who are deeply happy, Vogler defined self-transcendence as the sense that something matters beyond the “me and mine” immediate concerns of family, job, and success, involving a devotion to something greater.

Continue reading “Recap of our launch event: “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life: A Collaboration” – Humanities Day, 10-17-15″

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

To the sky – photo by Chris Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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