It was a homecoming for philosopher Jennifer Frey, who gave a downtown lecture and two campus presentations sponsored by the Lumen Christi Institute in February.
The assistant professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina contributed to the mission of the Lumen Christi Institute as assistant director while completing her doctorate, from 2010 to 2012, and then, upon the completion of her studies, as a consultant for the next three years.
More than 175 university students packed into the Ida Noyes Hall of the University of Chicago, Feb. 12, to hear Frey participate in a public forum with University of Chicago law professor Jonathan Masur on the topic, “What Good is Happiness?”
Frey argued that happiness is the highest good and the result of a moral life. She drew from the practical philosophy of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, whose aims were to “make people be good and live well.”
Everyone wants to be happy, fulfilled, and satisfied with their lives, said Frey. To this end, people question what will make them happy, how they should live, and what kind of a person they want to be.
Aristotle and Aquinas’s view of happiness is concerned with self-transcendence, that is, the ability to go beyond one’s self-interest and to engage in loving, human relationships. Happiness, therefore, is not a private good, but a common good. This philosophical view also connects happiness to virtue, and the exercise of this virtue within the context of human friendship.
“I come to see my happiness as inextricably bound up with the happiness of my friends,” said Frey. “It is a vision of happiness in which we flourish together.”
Masur, instead, took a subjectivist approach and argued that happiness has nothing to do with morality, but with positive feelings that give people the sense that their “life is going better” and that they have a lot of personal wellbeing. The negative feelings are what people would call unhappiness, he said.
He made the important distinction that “living a life that is good for you” and that allows one to experience a lot of happiness and wellbeing, “is not the same as living a life that is good in a moral or virtuous sense.”
He agreed with Frey that one’s happiness is closely associated with the happiness of others, but qualified that it is mostly intertwined with the happiness of those who are one’s closest relations, and much less so with the people outside of that immediate circle.
In the dialogue and engaging Q&A that followed the scholars’ individual presentations, Frey disputed the notion that happiness is “just a lump of positive experiences.”
“Happiness involves a sense of deep fulfillment… which is connected to your ability to make sense of your life as a whole and to see it as something valuable and noble,” she said.
Masur insisted that moral actions do not lead to happiness. Rather, it is entirely possible to do a morally good thing “that makes you less happy,” he said. Many people choose to act morally and well towards others for no other reason but the positive feelings it generates, he added.
At this point, the two scholars admitted to having a “deep conceptual disagreement” about the definition of happiness, how the concept should be reflected upon, and how it should be used.
The forum was co-sponsored by the Veritas Forum, Cana, Cru, Graduate Christian Fellowship, Holy Trinity Church, Intervarsity, Living Hope Church, the Lumen Christi Institute, MakeNew and Calvert House Catholic Center.
FLANNERY O’CONNOR’S REALISM
The following day, Frey gave a luncheon lecture at the University Club of Chicago on the theme, “Flannery O’Connor and the Vision of Grace.”
The American author’s Catholic vision of grace is understood in the particulars of her life, formation and education, said Frey, who traced the salient moments of O’Connor growing up Catholic in the post-War South. Her father’s untimely death from lupus gave her a sense of God’s grace working in the world, which she experienced as more dramatic and violent than gentle. Regarding her father’s death, she wrote: “The reality of death has come upon us and a consciousness of the power of God has broken our complacency like a bullet in the side. A sense of the dramatic, of the tragic, of the infinite, has descended upon us, filling us with
grief, but even above grief, wonder.”
Early in her career, O’Connor cemented her reputation for genius with the short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Frey offered an analysis of this story, which like many of O’Connor’s stories juxtaposes faith and violence.
O’Connor considered herself a “hillbilly Thomist,” said Frey. She read Aquinas every night and claimed that theology made her writing “bolder.” Frey said the Thomist influence in O’Connor’s work is evident in its intense realism. Frey sees this Christian realism as essential for O’Connor’s moral vision and aesthetic.
GREAT ART AND LITERATURE
A more intimate group of University of Chicago students and invited guests gathered at Gavin House Feb. 14 for a luncheon seminar on British novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch and her key influence on Frey’s philosophical interests in great works of literature.
Great literature can reveal a lot about the human being and the meaning of the moral life—a topic she explores regularly on her podcast, “Sacred and Profane Love,” she said.
Murdoch understood that at the core of good fiction is the ability to see the world for what it really is, and then to look beyond it to the heart of things, said Frey.
“Art removes the veil or mist of subjectivity and arrests the flux of life and makes us see the real world and this shock is the experience of beauty,” Frey said, citing Murdoch.
Good literature, distinct from philosophical analysis, contains truths about human beings and puts them on full display in the particularities of narration, said Frey.
Moral vision requires more than philosophy and theology, and art and literature serve to give a fuller picture of the good life, she said.
In an interview after her speaker series, Frey shared how the Lumen Christi Institute was an “intellectual home” for her while she completed her doctoral dissertation in Chicago and how it had an “enormous” impact on her personal and professional development.
“It connected me to so many scholars in my field. It was the source of so many deep friendships that I still maintain in my life,” she said.
Lumen Christi’s executive director, Thomas Levergood, was “especially supportive” of her academic work, she added.
Frey noted the considerable number of local Catholics, outside of academia and from across Chicagoland, who attend Lumen Christi events, looking to deepen their faith and learn about the Catholic intellectual tradition. Their participation “gave me a sense of the value of the work that Lumen Christi is doing for the Church,” she said.
Frey also expressed her appreciation of how the institute’s public events help to correct the common misperception among Catholics “that the universities are totally against the Church.”
“I think it’s important for people outside the university to know, in case they didn’t, that there are plenty of us Catholics in the academy,” she said.