The Theological Virtues in Critical Perspective



Our Spring 2017 workshop, ‘The Theological Virtues in Critical Perspective’, took place at the University of Essex in the Lakeview Room of the Silberrad Centre on Friday 24th February 2017.

How suspicious should we be about the tradition in which faith, hope and love are regarded as virtues? Is faith only for the weak? Can hope be more than wishful thinking? Is love ever really virtuous? This workshop took up these and related questions from various critical perspectives, drawing especially on the Stoics, Spinoza, Nietzsche and Adorno.

This workshop is part of a series of events organized by the AHRC-funded project, The Ethics of Powerlessness: The Theological Virtues Today. The project started in July 2015 and will run for three years. Its overall aim is to investigate the nature of human experiences of powerlessness and to clarify the ethical challenges that arise from them.


  • Timo Jütten (University of Essex )
  • Beth Lord (University of Aberdeen)
  • Simon May (Kings College London)
  • John Sellars (Kings College London)


Lakeview Room, Silberrad Centre, University of Essex

9.00: Registration (Refreshments Provided)

9.20: Welcome

09.30-11.00: John Sellars ‘Preparing for the Worst: Stoics against Hope’

11.00-11.15: Break (Refreshments Provided)

11.15-12.45: Timo Jütten ‘Adorno on Hope’

12.45-13.45: Lunch Break

13.45-15.15: Beth Lord ‘Spinoza’s socio-political critique of the theological virtues’

15.15-15.30: Break (Refreshments Provided)

15.30-17.00: Simon May ‘Why love isn’t the same as benevolence’

Green Paper

‘Faith, Hope, and Love in Critical Perspective’. Available to read online, or as a PDF download.


Timo Jütten

Timo Jütten is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Essex. His research is on Frankfurt School critical social theory, political philosophy and post-Kantian German philosophy. Recent work includes forthcoming or published papers in Ethics, the Journal of Political Philosophy, and the European Journal of Philosophy.

Beth Lord

Beth Lord is Reader in Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen. She is the author of Kant and Spinozism: Transcendental Idealism and Immanence from Jacobi to Deleuze (2011) and Spinoza’s Ethics: an Edinburgh Philosophical Guide (2010). She recently led a three-year AHRC funded research project on Spinoza, equality, and wellbeing, and is working on a book on Spinoza and equality.

Simon May

Simon May is Visiting Professor of Philosophy at King’s College London. His books include Love: A History (Yale University Press, 2011), Nietzsche’s Ethics and his War on ‘Morality’ (Oxford University Press, 1999), two edited volumes on Nietzsche’s philosophy  (OUP, 2009 and CUP, 2011), and a collection of his own aphorisms, entitled Thinking Aloud (Alma Books, 2009).

John Sellars 

John Sellars is a Research Fellow at King’s College London. He is the author of The Art of Living (2003), Stoicism (2006), and editor of The Routledge Handbook of the Stoic Tradition (2016).

Titles and Abstracts

Adorno on Hope

Timo Jütten

In Adorno’s Negative Dialectics hope is undesirable, impossible and necessary at once. In this paper I examine whether these seemingly contradictory views of hope can be reconciled. I begin with a brief discussion of Adorno’s negativism and then move on to his analysis of Kant’s Postulates of Pure Practical Reason in the “Meditations on Metaphysics.” I argue that Adorno’s philosophy, like Kant’s, is motivated by a “reducing urge,” and that he defends a minimal, negativistic form of hope, while criticising more substantial, positivist forms of it.


Spinoza’s socio-political critique of the theological virtues

Beth Lord

This paper will provide an overview of Baruch Spinoza’s (1632-77) criticism of the theological virtues from the perspective of their socio-political effects. For Spinoza, hope, humility, repentance, and pity are not virtues but passive affects that betray our weakness. Since Spinoza defines virtue as power, the notion of a “virtue of powerlessness” is incoherent for him. These affects, or feelings, are diminishments of our power that make us less socially cohesive and more susceptible to political manipulation. Also dangerous is our mistaken perception of our powerlessness as a virtue. I will examine the political ramifications of hope and love, before turning to the most socially divisive affects of all: pride and despondency. In feeling these affects we compare our mistaken perceptions about our own power or powerlessness with our perceptions of the power or powerlessness of others, leading to political effects such as those we have witnessed in 2016.


Why love isn’t the same as benevolence

Simon May

From love for neighbour (Leviticus 19:18 and Matthew 22:39) to contemporary secular conceptions of love we often find the word “love” used to denote a form of self-giving benevolence.  For example Harry Frankfurt, in The Reasons of Love (2004), conceives love as “disinterested concern for the well-being or flourishing of the person who is loved”, a concern of spontaneous or mysterious origin.  This way of conceiving love strikingly resembles the theological notion of agape, especially as developed by Protestant thinkers like Anders Nygren.  But it has two problems.  First, as a secularization of agape it lacks the theological framework, and especially the notion of divine “grace”, which alone can make sense of the idea of ungrounded devotion to the welfare of others.  Second, though love can give rise to the greatest benevolence of which human beings are capable, and in the healthy situation will inspire relationship that has self-giving at its core, it is not, I will argue, the same as benevolence, which can also be a virtue of character or an innate disposition, like the altruism that has been identified in very young infants or in chimpanzees.  Nor is love inspired exclusively by those whom the lover sees as benevolent.  Instead, I will propose, love has a very different grounding: namely in a promise of “ontological rootedness”.


Preparing for the Worst: Stoics against Hope

John Sellars

Instead of encouraging hope about the future, the ancient Stoics engaged in a process of preparing for the worst. Hope, they suggested, merely lulls one into a false sense of security. In this paper I shall outline their method of premeditation of future evils and consider examples of this in action in the works of Seneca and Epictetus. I shall also touch on an anonymous text, attributed to some by Seneca, devoted to the dangers of hope.


The workshop will be taking place in the Lakeview Room, which is on the second floor of the new Silberrad Centre, on the Colchester campus of the University of Essex. You can find directions to the room on our interactive campus map

To reach Colchester by car from London and South Essex, leave the A12 at the Colchester (A133) exit. If you are approaching from Ipswich, leave the A12 at the exit for Colchester (A1232). You can then follow the road signs to Colchester campus, which is in East Colchester off the A133. The postcode for the Colchester campus is CO4 3SQ, but please be aware that directions from satellite navigation can sometimes be misleading.

We have several car parks available on campus and would recommend Valley car park as the nearest to the workshop location. Please note that there are visitor parking charges on a Friday, and these are pay and display.

If you are travelling by train, the nearest station is Wivenhoe. Buses to campus (the 62) leave from right outside the station. Alternatively, buses (the 62) and taxis to campus are available at Colchester North Station.

For more information about getting here, please refer to the travel page on the main University website.


Spaces are strictly limited.

To register for this event, please complete the form below

Your Name (required)

Your Email (required)

Organisation, affiliation (if applicable)
eg University of London, Suffolk County Council

Event (required)