The Anxiety of Loss and the Anxiety of Meaning: Part One

 

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This is a two part series. Part Two, “Rationality and the Anxiety of Meaning”, posts tomorrow.

Part One: Anxiety and Loss

It is of our very nature as rational animals to reflect on our life. We do not only pursue ends, but also ask whether our ends are good and whether our life as a whole is going well. We might say that our rational practical capacity, the capacity to question and justify our ends, allows us an ethical life. By virtue of our reason we may amend our ways and also live with the knowledge that our life and the ends we pursue are as they should be. However, along with the ethical light bestowed by reason come worries unique to rational beings like us. Being able to question our ends opens the possibility of doubt and skepticism about the worth of those ends and the worth of our life as a whole. And with our comprehension of the possibility of change comes the worry that we may lose that which is of worth. In following the light of reason we are haunted by the shadows of anxiety.

 

Human reflection on anxiety has always accompanied the rational reflection on the good life (ethics). However, it sometimes appears that unlike the rational contemplation of human life (ethics) that has given rise to systems of thought, the shadowy realm of anxiety is formless and particular; subject matter for the human imagination and artistic creation, rather than for rational systematic philosophy. But since anxiety comes with practical rationality, it is forever marked by the contour of reason. Though anxiety may lack the internal rational articulation of ethics, it bears eternal witness to the rational anatomy of ethics. In what comes next I propose that from our nature as rational animals, i.e., beings with both desires and reason, follows two essential kinds of anxieties: the anxiety of meaning and the anxiety of loss. The anxiety of meaning concerns the apprehension that our life and ends are meaningless and worthless. The anxiety of loss concerns the dread that whatever is of worth, may—and eventually will—change and degenerate.

 

But before I show in what sense these two anxieties are essential and follow from our rational nature, an important distinction is in order. Anxiety is not identical to fear and has a different relation to our rationality. In attempting to distinguish between ‘fear’ and ‘anxiety’ it is often said that fear has an object (say, a menacing stray dog), and anxiety does not; fear is a response to a real threat, whereas anxiety isn’t. In other words, while fear is infused with reasons (“the stray dog is about to attack me, this is why I’m afraid!”), anxiety isn’t. This distinction provides a negative understanding of anxiety; namely, through its not being in the space of reasons, i.e. its being non-rational. However, it is less often noted that anxiety is entirely tied with reason, and while it has no object (or content) of its own, it arises from the form of our practical reason. What do I mean by the form of practical reason? I mean that which pertains to practical reason regardless of any specific ends (contents). Thus, regardless of what one’s pursuits in life are, as an agent one must have pursuits, must have ends; must have desires. Bereft of desires one has no reasons to act at all (consider clinical depression). Accordingly, having desires, we may say, is a formal characteristic of creatures like us. Another formal characteristic comes from our rationality. As noted earlier, as rational agents, we also reflect on our ends, both to see whether they are attainable (and how) and to see whether they are worthy. Accordingly, the capacity to rationally assess and evaluate one’s end and the means to one’s ends is a formal characteristic of our practical being. We see then that these two aspects of human agency, desire and reason, are formal aspects in the sense that they hold regardless of one’s actual objects of desires. Whether one desires to be a lawyer, a priest, spend time with one’s family or watch football, qua rational agent one has desires and reason – both capacities constitute the form of human agency. In light of this, we see that anxiety, unlike fear, transpires from the very form of human agency. The anxiety of loss transpires from having objects of desire (ends), the anxiety of meaning from being able to rationally consider our ends.

 

I now turn to elaborate on the two essential anxieties. Desiring, for finite creatures like us, comes with the perennial risk of loss. As conscious beings, we are conscious of this risk as internal to our human condition. We are aware of it as a formal characteristic of our life. As such, rather than being a mere unfortunate fact of human psychology, the anxiety of loss is bound with the form of human life; even the happy life. Part of human happiness consists of desires, most importantly, of care and love, for people, ideas and projects. For instance, family, friends, community and vocation, constitute such central objects of care and love, and in their absence we consider life deficient. These are some of the core objects of human desire (ends) and few would voluntarily opt for life bereft of them (though this is perhaps not at all a matter of choice). But along with having these ends comes the realization that we can lose them. Traditionally, the figure of Job poignantly symbolizes the fragility of human life—how a good life, a life rich with family, friends, and possessions, can always fall into pieces. Being finite beings we always stand in danger of losing that which is precious to us and so, a painful shadow lurks even in the happiest life. The consciousness of our fragility and constant risk of losing (or never getting) what is good in our lives is the anxiety of loss.

 


Amichai Amit is PhD student in philosophy at the University of Chicago. His research concerns the foundations of ethics and normativity. He also has strong interests in the history of philosophy (ancient and German idealism) and existentialism. He previously received an MA in Philosophy from Tel-Aviv University.

 

Moral Art

This post was written after a visit to ArtAIDSAmerica Chicago, at the Alphawood Gallery, 2014 North Halsted Street, Chicago. The show runs through April 2, 2017.

 

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“AIDS—JUDGMENT HAS COME, Slidell, Louisiana,” 1989, Inkjet print, Ann P. Meredith. Photo by Jaime Hovey.

 

It is hard to enter the space of the ArtAIDSAmerica Chicago exhibit without experiencing outrage. The massive human tragedy caused by years of governmental and mainstream social indifference toward a disease that wiped out an entire generation of young men here and abroad, as well as women and children, and that still rages on today, draws comparison to the callous use of soldiers as machine gun fodder by the decrepit British generals of the First World War, or the stubborn insistence by the Johnson and Nixon administrations that teenaged boys by the truckload be shipped off to die in Vietnam. In 1980, 31 people had died of what would later come to be known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Ten years later, the death toll in the U.S. alone was 18,447, and continued to rise throughout the 1990s. People living with and dying of AIDS included all sorts of people–gay men, male and female IV needle users, straight and gay women, hemophiliacs, and children born to HIV-positive mothers. Still, the disease was perceived as particular to gay men, and as a result of the stigma associated with them, the U.S. government failed to respond quickly to the crisis.

 

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“Every 12 Minutes,” Nayland Black, 1991. Photo by Jaime Hovey.

 

Artists responded to the crisis by making overtly activist and political art. Many works in this show foreground issues of exclusion, stigma, and injustice. Entering the exhibit, one is immediately confronted by Nayland Black’s 1991 “Every 12 Minutes,” a clock on the wall with STOP IT! written in the middle, its face divided into 5 equal sections by the words “ONE AIDS DEATH.” The clock exhorts us to stop these deaths, but it also commands us to stop all the other behaviors contributing to the crisis, from spreading misinformation to having unsafe sex to stigmatizing people with the disease.

 

Turning from the clock, visitors can see a shimmering bluish beaded curtain by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (Water), 1995, that stretches across a wide entryway, separating the entryway from the room beyond. Yet through the clear and bluish beads this next room is also gauzily visible, glowing and beckoning from beyond a veil.

 

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“Untitled” (Water), 1995. Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Photo by Jaime Hovey.

 

In a small, adjacent room Native American symbols speak to both stigma and loss. David Wojnarowicz’s gelatin silver print “Untitled” (Buffalo), 1988-89 is a photograph of a diorama of the Native American hunting practice of herding buffalo off a cliff, suggesting the intentional killing of people with AIDS not only through indifference, but through active hostility and homophobia. Ronald Lockett’s “Facing Extinction,” 1994, made of chalk, metal, and wood, shows a ghostly buffalo, a recurring symbol for Lockett of hunted creatures. It stands on a too-solid three-dimensional cliff, gazing into our space as its body begins to disappear into the background. “More Time Expected,” 2002, by Sicangu Lakota artist Thomas Haukaas, shows figures riding singly and in pairs surrounding a riderless horse, symbolizing those felled by the disease.

 

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“More Time Expected,” 2002. Thomas Haukaas. Photo by Jaime Hovey.

 

Part Gonzalez-Torres’s beaded glass curtain and enter a large open space with soaring ceilings. On one wall, a recreation of ACT-UP NY/Gran Fury’s 1987 video and neon installation “Let the Record Show” shines like a dark window, dominating the room. At the top a neon pink triangle glows steadily over white letters spelling out the famous ACT-UP logo, “Silence = Death.” The projection of an arched crescent and decorative columns around the outside of the logo gives it an architectural quality, like a temple or a church nave, beneath which long panels stretch down like stained-glass. Here photographs of six people from the Reagan era are superimposed on an old photograph of the Nuremburg Trials depicting Nazi war criminals seated in a courtroom guarded by Allied soldiers. An electronic panel with running titles in red shows AIDS statistics and epidemic facts. The superimposed photographs light up and go dark, alternately revealing the faces of Senator Jessie Helms, columnist William F. Buckley Jr., Cory Servaas of the Presidential AIDS Commission, an anonymous surgeon, and President Ronald Reagan. These are the war criminals of the AIDS crisis. Underneath each face is an offensive quote made by each one about disease victims, such as Buckley’s infamous assertion that people with AIDS should be “tattooed on the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals,” or the surgeon’s quip that AIDS provided a better reason to “hate faggots.” To underscore the work’s declaration that silence equals death, there is no quote from Reagan, who famously said nothing even as the worst health epidemic in centuries raged around him.

 

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“Let the Record Show”, 1987. ACT-UP NY/Gran Fury. Photo by Jaime Hovey.

 

Other mixed-media and video works include a bank of screens with headphones and seating for projects such as T. Kim Trang Tran’s “kore,” 1994, which swoops in and away from grainy black and white moving images of Asian men relaxing at the beach or walking through cities, zooming out every so often to show these figures, distanced from us by time, being watched by other men and boys on hand-held screens and scrolls. The gaze created here suggests that cruising after AIDS cannot be dispassionate; the look of curiosity, appreciation, and desire for Asian men created in and by these images is now tinged with melancholy, memory, and loss.

 

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Still from “kore,” 1994. T. Kim Trang Tran. Photo by Jaime Hovey

 

In what is thought to be the first AIDS painting, Izhar Patkin creates in his “Unveiling of a Modern Chastity” a surface of erupting skin lesions fashioned out of rubber paste, latex, and ink. Moved by the symptoms he saw in patients at his dermatology office, he documented their wounds a year before there was any public announcement about the disease or its victims. Here the sores break open the skin of the painting to ooze and glisten in the light, pushing through from underneath as if something monstrous is housed inside. The painting is shocking, but it also forces the viewer to confront the disease at the level of skin, pain, and the body.

 

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“Unveiling of a Modern Chastity,” 1981, Izhar Patkin. Photo by Jaime Hovey.

 

The cumulative effect of these works is to move viewers from outrage at homophobic and indifferent responses to the epidemic to admiration at the courage and resilience of AIDS artists, activists, allies, and survivors. In these works we see creative, political, and deeply moral reactions to the absence of justice, to the withholding of compassion, and to the celebration of love in America at a time when huge numbers of people were suffering and dying.

 

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“Eleven, October 2015”, Kia LaBeija. Originally posted on Refinery 29 here.

 

Religious imagery shapes many of the works, speaking to the gulf between the moral response of the queer community–which involved projects such as public safe sex education and meals on wheels for the homebound–and the judgmental condemnation and indifference of government officials and mainstream religious groups, which shuttered bathhouses and gay clubs in a misguided effort to stop gay sex from happening. In “AIDS—JUDGMENT HAS COME, Slidell, Louisiana,” Ann P. Meredith documents a set of billboards she saw in Louisiana as she traveled to photograph women living with AIDS. Her print shows the harsh messages of the billboards as undercut by a graffiti tagger who writes “Love” and “Peace,” and slyly quotes from Romans 3:10, “There is none righteous, no, not one,” a verse that when it appears in the Bible is followed by the words, “There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God.”

 

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“Altar Piece,” 1990, Keith Haring. Photo by Jaime Hovey.

 

Keith Haring’s gleaming silver “Altar Piece,” the last work he completed before he died, shows a weeping Mary with a shining heart and multiple arms holding the infant Jesus under a cross in the center panel of a triptych. Here the Trinity is reimagined to include her, and below her crowds raise their hands in anger and supplication as angels fly and fall.

 

Echoing the theme of Icarian angels, Daniel Goldstein’s “Icarian I Incline,” fashions a Shroud of Turin from the leather cover of a weight bench that once belonged to the Castro gym Muscle System, nicknamed Muscle Sisters by patrons. Stained with the sweat of a thousand gay men, many of whom have since died, the cover bears the ghostly image of their bodies, framed here as a relic memorializing the exuberant communities that flew too close to the sun, flourished before AIDS, and came together to support each other during and after the crisis.

 

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“Icarian I Incline,” 1993, Daniel Goldstein. Photo by Jaime Hovey.

 

Martin Wong’s 1988 “I.C.U.” shows an eye in a triangle floating over a brick building. Echoing the pink triangle in the nearby “Let the Record Show,” the eye above the building here resembles the eye on a dollar bill, but appears amidst constellations, like the eye of God. A pun on “I see you,” the letters are also the common abbreviation for Intensive Care Unit, the place in hospitals where so many gay men lay dying during the epidemic. In this work, most of the brick building is dark, and only the wing with fire escapes is lit and accessible. The eye of providence seems not to know or care about what is inside; in any case, here God is only potentially available upon exit.

 

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“I.C.U.,” 1988, Martin Wong. Photo by Jaime Hovey.

 

This is not to suggest that the show is tragic; indeed, the entire exhibit is a triumph of creativity, defiance, and love. Artists pay tribute to the fallen in painting, video, textiles, and sculpture, remember those who were there, and call out those who refused to be present. Charles LeDrey’s teddy bear in a box from 1991 suggests both mourning and the end of innocence. In Rosalind Solomon’s gelatin silver print “Silence Equals Death, Washington, DC,” 1987-90, a young man covered in Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions confronts the camera wearing full protest regalia, including ACT-UP buttons, a straw hat, and a paper Star of David. Frank Moore’s “Patient,” 1997-1998, shows an empty hospital bed painted with leaves and snowflakes, where environmental devastation and AIDS are emergencies that require equally urgent care.

 

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“Patient,” 1997-1998, Frank Moore. Photo by Jaime Hovey.

 

Kia LaBeija’s glossy technicolor photographs, such as “Eleven, October 2015,” and “Kia and Mommy” (below) document her dignity living with hospitals and doctor visits, and celebrate fashion and makeup as creative gestures that make everyday life beautiful.

 

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“Kia and Mommy,” 2014, Kia LaBejia. Photo Kia LaBejia – Visual AIDS here.

 

The pieces gathered here span three-and-a-half decades and include work by people still living, as well as cataloging the talent of too many who died too soon. Their project is a deeply moral one: to remind viewers that sick people are human, that no one deserves to suffer, that death comes for all of us, and that the proper response to tragedy is always—must be—art, compassion, and action.

 

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Detail from “By Punchinello’s Bed”, 1992, Patrick Webb. Photo by Jaime Hovey.

 


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

ArtAIDSAmerica Chicago runs through April 2.

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

Workshop on Happiness, Virtue, and the Meaning of Life at Stockholm University | May 5-6, 2017

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This two-day workshop aims to close the gap between empirical and philosophical approaches to questions of happiness, virtue, and the meaning of life, in the interest of encouraging the development of an empirically informed philosophy and a science with philosophical awareness. Organizers: Erik Angner and Mats Ingelström.

Keynotes by Jennifer A. Frey (University of South Carolina) and Candace Vogler (University of Chicago).

Presentations by Anna Alexandrova (Cambridge University), Michael Bishop (Florida State
University), Dale Dorsey (University of Kansas), Kirsten Egerstrom (Southern Methodist University), Kaisa Kärki (University of Jyväskylä), Antti Kauppinen (University of Tampere), Jennifer Lockhart (Auburn University), Jason Raibley (California State University), Raffaele Rodogno (Aarhus University), Joshua Lewis Thomas (University of Sheffield), Willem van der Deijl (Erasmus University ) and Sam Wren-Lewis (Leeds University).

FREE ADMISSION „ Time and place: Friday and Saturday 5–6 of May, in the William-Olsson lecture hall (Geovetenskapens hus).

For more information: www.philosophy.su.se/happiness-virtue-meaning-of-life

 

 

Download the poster: Workshop-Happiness-VIrtue-Meaning-Poster.pdf

Boethius on Happiness Part II: Happiness and Love

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Image found on the post Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy from “the bower” blog.

Boethius presents us with a picture of happiness in which it is entirely a matter of choice and personal responsibility whether one attains it. If we are unhappy, it is a product of our own culpable ignorance—a failure to know ourselves, and thus a failure to take the means necessary to secure our ultimate, highest end.

I am inclined to think this is far too dismissive of human frailty and interdependence, and of our need to love and be loved by one another. One finds little talk of love in Boethius, or friendship. But how can we understand human happiness without putting love and friendship front and center of our account?

I disagree with Boethius that virtue is entirely within our control, since the cultivation of it depends on others, and is therefore not inoculated against good fortune. Virtue does not rise spontaneously in us, it requires training from those who possess it themselves. But not everyone in life is fortunate enough to be surrounded by virtuous and wise parents, teachers, or friends. Can we expect those born in unfortunate conditions, such as extreme poverty or broken and abusive homes, to come to the wisdom that Philosophy represents? And even if we come to possess it, wisdom itself is fragile. Iris Murdoch was wise in many respects, but during the last years of her life her rational capacities were slowly destroyed by Alzheimer’s disease.

Second, we may think that part of what it is to be wise is not only to recognize but accept and even embrace the fragility of human goodness. Setting aside the question whether Boethius was right to believe in eternal life and man’s potential participation in it, it seems that genuine self-knowledge includes both the recognition and embrace of our own radical vulnerability and dependence upon others. It is a fact about us that even the best things we can hope to attain for ourselves in this life—a loving family, meaningful friendships, knowledge and wisdom, etc—we may lose against our will. This inherent fragility does not denigrate these goods or our pursuit of them, but rather, reveals an important truth about human beings: we need to rely on others, and radically so. Human love grows in a space of mutual dependence and trust, and it depends on our recognition of our inherent exposure to evil and misfortune. Our happiness is not, as Philosophy insists, totally up to us. We need to be able to turn to others, to expose ourselves and share the burdens of the human condition. This is true for religious persons just as much as their secular counterparts.

Boethius is right, however, to stress that while we cannot control what happens to us, we can control how we react to it. A wise person will know that suffering through life’s inevitable misfortunes and disappointments is the fate of us all, and that part of living well is possessing the ability to suffer well—to face our brokenness with a measure of fortitude. It is also true that some of us will have to suffer far more than others, and that some of this does come down to luck. Boethius is further correct to say that if we have cultivated the virtues, we will be better equipped to bear our burdens with a measure of grace. But virtue alone is not enough—we do need the love, support, and companionship of intimates and neighbors. Boethius was wrong, I think, to focus so much on “self-sufficiency.” None of us is self-sufficient, and it’s a mistake to strive to be.

Boethius, alone in his prison cell, certainly had no friends to turn to. But perhaps Boethius looked upon Aristotle, Plato and others as friends—guides to help him navigate his fallen state. Wisdom is reached in a manner that is mediated by tradition, and we may find in great works of art, literature, and philosophy a similar expansion of the self through others that can console us in our darkest hours. Philosophy too is a kind of friend and constant companion.

Finally, Boethius’s work can help us to see that there is something true in what Kant says about the good will. If we are extremely unlucky in life, we may accept our fate and yet not give in to total despair. If nothing else, a good person can rest in the knowledge that she could not have managed better for herself. While it may not be a perfectly happy death, it is a far cry the despairing thought that one’s life was a pointless waste.

Kant was wrong, however, to insist that the inevitability of luck shows that the pursuit of happiness is suspect, for he was wrong to insist that all that matters is the cultivation of a good will. It is not wrong to want to be happy and to direct one’s efforts towards this goal. But we must do so in a way that is clear eyed about what we are: vulnerable and dependent creatures, in need of giving and receiving love. All of us, like Boethius, stand more or less insecure. The key to happiness, then, is probably not to search for what is ultimately up to us—nothing seems to fit this description—but to seek, as best we can, and with the acknowledged help of others, to become the kind of person who loves rightly, and is thereby easy to love in return.

 

Part I-Happiness and Good Fortune


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.

In Honor of International Day of Happiness: Boethius, Philosophy, and Happiness. Part I-Happiness and Good Fortune

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“Philosophy Presenting the Seven Liberal Arts to Boethius” – image courtesy Getty.edu

Everyone strives for happiness in life, but you don’t have to be especially perceptive to notice that not everyone reaches the goal.  How much of this failure is one’s own fault? After all, we humans are vulnerable creatures, all more or less at the mercy of fortune.  Talent, beauty, intelligence, health, social privilege, a loving and secure family—these gifts are distributed unequally among us, and we may lose them against our wills.  This raises the question: How much of human happiness is a matter of good fortune or gift, and how much of it is under a person’s voluntary control?  Even the word happiness carries with it connotations of what is bestowed rather than earned (etymologically, it’s root is ‘hap,’ which means good luck; in fact, in most European languages, the word for happiness originally had the same reference to good fortune rather what has been merited through wise choices).

Contemporary virtue ethicists often argue that the purpose of life is happiness, and that if you hope to reach it, you ought to cultivate a good character.[1] But then what should we say to the man who cultivates virtue but to whom happiness is ultimately denied?  Do we simply acknowledge that there is an element of luck in anything a human pursues, including the highest good?  Must we admit that some among us are tragic figures, fated to a sorry end despite all hard fought efforts to change it?

Furthermore, if real tragedy is possible, then perhaps it is wrong to insist that happiness is the goal of life; perhaps instead, as Immanuel Kant argues, we should simply strive to be moral, without thinking this is in the service of anything else.  In his influential Metaphysics of Morals, Kant claims the following about a good will:

“Even if by some particular disfavor of fate, or by the scanty endowment of a stepmotherly nature, this will should entirely lack the capacity to carry through its purpose; if despite its greatest striving it should still accomplish nothing, and only the good will were to remain…then, like a jewel, it would still shine by itself, as something that has full worth in itself”.”[2]

The role of fortune in human life and its impact on happiness is the central theme of one of the most influential literary texts of the Middle Ages, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy.  For Boethius (475-526), the questions surrounding fate and fortune were not merely academic but existential; a philosopher-statesman in the mold that Plato first outlined, Boethius finds himself unjustly accused of treason and sentenced to an untimely and cruel death. While imprisoned, without his library, his health, his friends or family, Boethius composes a deeply moving meditation on wisdom and happiness.

The book opens with a lament upon his own pitiful condition, which will set up a sharp contrast between Boethius and Lady Philosophy.  Boethius describes himself in a state of physical decline and despair; with “untimely white upon his head,” he describes himself as a “worn out bone bag hung with flesh.”  He yearns for the release of death, but complains that death’s ears are “deaf to hopeless cries” and death’s hands refuse “to close poor weeping eyes.”  Reflecting upon his earlier life, he writes:

Foolish the friends who called me happy then

For falling shows a man stood insecure.

While he is busy feeling sorry for himself, Lady Philosophy—wisdom personified—appears to him.  She is noted for her keen, burning eyes, a sign that she is able to see reality clearly.  She, unlike Boethius, is healthy, calm and unperturbed, of regal mien and dress.  She carries books in one arm (a symbol of her knowledge) and a scepter in the other (a symbol of her power to order and rule life in accordance with it). Philosophy is described as a physician who has come to diagnose and heal Boethius; she tells him he suffers from a “sickness of mind”—an amnesia, since he has forgotten what he once knew. This amnesia has been brought about not by his change of fortune, but his inordinate focus on his current plight, which stirs up in him vehement passions of grief, sadness, and anger. Philosophy is there to help him recover knowledge of himself and his true nature.  This knowledge, she tells him, will be his ultimate consolation and cure.

Philosophy uses rational argument to heal her patient.  She begins by arguing that the loss of good fortune is no genuine loss.  Fortune, she complains, flatters people and entices them with a false sense of happiness.  The happiness that good fortune grants is unreliable and insecure, as change is the very essence of fortune.  Boethius depicts Fortune as a lady gleefully and carelessly spinning a wheel that determines man’s fate.  When it is her turn to speak to Boethius, she warns him:

It is the game I never cease to play as I turn my wheel in its ever changing circle, filled with joy as I bring the top to the bottom and the bottom to the top.  Yes, rise up on my wheel if you like, but don’t count it an injury when by the same token you begin to fall, as the rules of the game will require.[3]

Fortune controls worldly goods: wealth, honors, power, fame, and pleasures.  Philosophy points out that none of these goods is ever wholly stable or secure. Thus, if a man sets his heart upon any of them he is bound to wind up anxious in his ongoing struggle to maintain them.

Real happiness, by contrast, cannot be lost to a man who possesses it.  Such a good is “self-sufficient” in that it lacks nothing and leaves nothing more to be desired once possessed.  A man who is truly happy is perfectly sated—he does not thirst or want for more.  Eventually, Philosophy comes to argue that the only candidate for such a complete and perfect good is God, and that the only way to participate in this good is to cultivate virtue.  This is meant to console Boethius, since the cultivation of virtue is the one thing she insists is under his complete control.

Tomorrow, Part II of Boethius, Philosophy, and Happiness continues with “Happiness and Love.”

[1] For example, see Rosalind Hursthouse’s claim that virtue is a “safe bet.” On Virtue Ethics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 185

[2] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of morals. Edited and translated by Mary Gregor, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 8.

[3] Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy. Translated by Victor Watts.  London: Penguin Books, 1999, p. 25


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.

Last Week in Virtue: Atheists, Good Pagans and the Scandal of Hypocrisy

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Pope Francis in his homily at the morning Mass at the Casa Santa Marta on February 23, 2017.

This post marks the first of a new occasional series, “Last Week in Virtue.”

“But what is scandal? Scandal is saying one thing and doing another; it is a double life, a double life. A totally double life: ‘I am very Catholic, I always go to Mass, I belong to this association and that one; but my life is not Christian, I don’t pay my workers a just wage, I exploit people, I am dirty in my business, I launder money…’ A double life. And so many Christians are like this, and these people scandalize others. How many times have we heard – all of us, around the neighbourhood and elsewhere – ‘but to be a Catholic like that, it’s better to be an atheist.’ It is that, scandal. You destroy. You beat down. And this happens every day, it’s enough to see the news on TV, or to read the papers. In the papers there are so many scandals, and there is also the great publicity of the scandals. And with the scandals there is destruction.” –Pope Francis homily, February 23, 2017 (Link)

 

On February 23 Pope Francis gave a homily that received widespread media attention, not so much for its message—a fairly traditional one about the sin of hypocrisy—but because the media seized on the Pope’s assertion that even an atheist was better than an observant Catholic leading a “double,” or hypocritical, life. Daniel Burke’s headline, at CNN, promptly declared, “Pope suggests it’s better to be an atheist than a bad Christian.” Burke discussed the Pope’s idea of scandal, noting that scandal is a particularly sensitive word for the Catholic Church. But the headline to his article shows the Pope’s notion of scandal eclipsed here by what the news media saw as a shout out to virtuous atheists.

 

UPI concurred, “Pope: ‘Better to be an atheist’ than a Christian living a ‘double life.’”  The Huffington Post followed: “Pope Francis Slams Hypocrite Christians, Suggests Atheists Are Better.”

 

Even some Catholic publications found the atheism angle too tempting to resist: Crux, an online newsletter, trumpeted “Pope says better an atheist than a Catholic living a double life.”

 

In emphasizing the atheism story, the media in many ways replicated the very sense of scandal that the Pope decried in his homily, with headlines repeating over and over that the Pope would rather have a world full of good atheists than vicious Catholics. Looking closely at the Pope’s words shows that his concern in this case is as much on the shame of the public spectacle of Catholic hypocrisy as it is on celebrating virtuous nonbelievers: “How many times have we heard—all of us, around the neighborhood and elsewhere—‘but to be a Catholic like that, it’s better to be an atheist.’”

 

The news clearly liked the second part of his sentence better than the first part, but the emphasis in his speech is not on the virtue of atheism, but the terrible destructiveness of the scandal of hypocrisy, and how this kind of publicity, this kind of circulation of these images of Christians as vile hypocrites, destroys trust and faith. “You destroy. You beat down.”

 

We all know whenever one of these stories about Christian hypocrisy circulates, he says, that everybody looks at it and says, Better to be an atheist than one of “those” hypocritical Christians. We all understand, he is saying, that hypocrisy is a terrible sin, and we all would agree that an atheist without hypocrisy is better than a so-called believer who claims to believe in Christian charity while acting in a way that harms and exploits vulnerable people. The stress here is on the harm caused by the hypocrite, and on the news stories that emphasize that these kinds of so-called Christians—powerful Catholics who pretend to have generosity while actually treating others with great cruelty– are everywhere.

 

In one sense, then, the Pope wants to remind the hypocrite to return to a virtuous life by pointing out that their salvation is anything but assured. He wants to confront the sinner squarely with the sin—the fault of scandal lies with the hypocrite, not the news. He expands on the dishonesty of hypocrisy to show that it also includes the destructiveness of bad example and public scandal. At the same time, he uses the example of the atheist to remind listeners that good actions matter more than identity. A virtuous life might make a good person—even an earnest atheist—more fit for salvation than a person who goes to church regularly but steals wages from their employees.

 

Why is this notion of the virtuous atheist so attractive?

 

The virtuous atheist here seems a lot like the old trope of the virtuous pagan, whose fate preoccupied medieval scholars concerned with the salvation of those outside the Church, especially the ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish writers they admired. Traditionally virtuous pagans fell roughly into two categories: those who had been offered Christian salvation and turned it down, and those who never had the opportunity to convert because of factors like chronology or geography. [1] To medieval scholars, it seemed patently unfair that the eminent philosophers, poets, and Old Testament scholars and patriarchs they studied should be automatically damned. They dreamed up various solutions, such as Christ descending to hell to baptize good people who had somehow ended up there, Limbos that resembled Paradise where good pagans might be housed until the Last Judgment, and the idea, championed by Thomas Aquinas and others, that following a virtuous life might lead a good person—even an atheist—to faith and salvation.

 

It may be that some journalists mistakenly believed that the Pope was acknowledging that a good life and afterlife could be had completely and forever outside the Church, which he wasn’t. The virtuous pagan doesn’t get to remain outside the Church forever, but at some point is expected to be led by virtue to Catholic conversion. This belief was seen last week in Vatican news sources that stressed this aspect of the Pope’s homily, such as Vatican Radio’s “Pope: Don’t put off conversion, give up a double life.”

 

However, it is not a stretch to say the Pope remains more concerned with doing good in the world than he is with the particulars of Church affiliation. According to Catholic Online, Francis explained himself, “The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart, do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can… “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ, all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!” We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

 

In this diverse and secular age, there is something particularly appealing about the idea that it is the virtuous life that matters most, that it reveals its own truth regardless of religious faith. The Pope’s example of the virtuous atheist as better than the sinful Catholic appealed to the media last week because it emphasized that cultivating virtue is more important than membership, association, or influence. Not all of us can be powerful, rich, or politically well-connected, but each of us can try to be good. The stamp of religious membership might indicate that a good person stands before you, but it also might be true that the person who sets themselves up as a Christian paragon is a liar. By suggesting that virtuous action matters more than religious affiliation, wealth, or political power, the Pope appealed to a public weary of moral posturing and hungry for more discussion of how we all might cultivate genuine character, real compassion, and true moral direction by striving to be good in the world.

 

[1] Cindy L. Vitto, The Virtuous Pagan In Middle English Literature, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 79, No. 5 (1989), pp. 1-100; Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1006545

 


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