The topic of our seminar was contemplation, attention, and moral perception. I have been thinking seriously about practical wisdom (phronesis or prudentia) for a few years now (I’m currently editing a collection of essays on this topic for Oxford University Press) and this led me to think more carefully about what it means to have a well developed moral vision, such that one can see what is good in the particular situation and respond to it with ease and pleasure. I became struck by the metaphor of vision—a metaphor that is also deployed in discussions of contemplation. Why did the ancients understand the good life, first and foremost, in terms of a clear vision of reality? How does contemplation relate to virtue? And what counts as contemplation?
Within contemporary analytic philosophy, even among those who take virtue and human flourishing seriously, few people are asking these questions. And so I’ve found myself thinking about how to recover the value of contemplation in a world where the value of receptivity has been almost entirely lost. I’ve also found myself trying to understand how there might be different forms of contemplation. For instance, the artist must contemplate in order to excel at her craft, but even the great artist is not necessarily virtuous on account of her contemplation. How does the artist’s contemplation differ from the sort of contemplation that is connected to virtue? These questions are especially important to me, since I am also the host of a literature, philosophy, and theology podcast, Sacred and Profane Love, which explores the intersection of art, faith, and morality.
I began to make some progress on these questions by reading Iris Murdoch and Simone Weil, with their emphasis on the connections between love and attention, and straight away I began to see connections between what these women were trying to say and various threads from Aquinas and Augustine I had long been familiar with. The graduate seminar was an excellent opportunity for me to read Murdoch, Weil, Augustine and Aquinas with graduate students who not only value contemplation, but also practice it in their lives.
This brings me to what was most extraordinary about this seminar. We didn’t just discuss contemplation, we spent time contemplating together: in study of great texts, of course, but also in the National Gallery, where we spent time appreciating the paintings of El Greco, and in the chapel, where we engaged in contemplative prayer together. We also spent time with the painter, Andrew de Sa, in his studio, where we not only enjoyed his art, but also learned more about how contemplation figures in his own work. Andrew also led us in a fruitful discussion of Joseph Pieper’s essay, “Learning How To See Again.”
I am grateful to the IHE for bringing me to Catholic University of America this summer to teach its students. I can only hope that the students learned half as much from me as I did from them!