The Relevance of Aristotle and the Role of Christ (pt. 1)

It’s hard to imagine someone, centuries from now, mistaking our culture for a moral highpoint in the history of the West. Increasingly the news is dominated by school shootings, abusive policing, sexploitation of women, and increasing rates of suicide, addiction, and divorce. In response, the Left calls for regulations, surveillance, information campaigns, and various forms of statist management. Meanwhile the Right contends for individual freedom, “the principles of the Founders,” “traditional values,” natural law (rarely)—and various forms of statist management. All of this hardly slows the collapse of real lives beyond the strutting of D.C. rhetoric; but at least the economy is strong.

Virtue and the language of the virtues have mostly been abandoned. To see this one need only pay attention to the value talk of East-coast elites, major universities, the media, and other guardians of political correctness. While we hear much of “tolerance,” “sensitivity,” “inclusion,” “humanitarianism,” “self-determination,” we hear less and less of the traditional virtues, whether classical or biblical; and to the extent these virtues are praised, they are praised for supporting their more “correct” counterparts. For instance, someone is lionized for their “courage” for “speaking out” on behalf of the underprivileged. (Of course so-called “safe spaces” and other forms of coddling, the quelling of dissent in the form of shout-downs, and the virtualization of discourse on social media—all show that genuine courage of speech has been abandoned for the group emoting of identity politics.) Given the record of classical virtue ethics in shaping some of the great leaders and culture-makers of the last two millennia, it is staggering the degree to which moral damage-controllers rely on external programming, the sort that fails to acknowledge the role of sinful hearts. College administrators deploy a mix of regulation (harsher penalties; detailed codes) and emotional conditioning in the form of togetherness training and “awareness” campaigns so alleged haters can learn to sympathize with their victims. Such “education” is not formation but the mere sharing of information, the following of guidelines for less-destructive action without addressing the deeper source of that action. Meanwhile the Common Core standards largely banish discussion of virtue from the classroom, the place where future citizens, parents, and spouses take shape. Somewhere Gramsci is cheering.

All of this makes Aristotle’s moral philosophy as relevant as ever. His was an ethics not of rules or outcome calculation, but of virtue. For Aristotle, actions are good if performed by a virtuous agent who is oriented toward the good. The relevance of Aristotle was affirmed over thirty years ago in Alistair McIntire’s classic After Virtue. Since then, James K. A. Smith, Rod Dreher, and others have reminded us of it. Still, it might be worthwhile for biblical conservatives to note afresh Aristotle’s common sense, his keen observation, and the uncanny coincidence of his analyses with life as we live it.

Despite its astonishing fit to reality, Aristotle’s ethics is just as astonishingly disregarded.

Of course that is not surprising given the fading of two traditional underpinnings of virtue ethics: the widespread acceptance of natural law and of the Bible as a moral authority. Here I am especially concerned with the second of these. I want to trace the outlines of Aristotle’s ethics, mark several of its interesting similarities to New Testament—one might say “Pauline”—ethics, but also consider a major and indeed fatal difference. If we can see the place where Christ steps into Aristotle’s ethics, we can get a fuller view of where our culture is morally and where we need to go.

For Aristotle virtue is not a habit but something deeper, a “deep” habit or “active condition” of the soul, though it is formed by habituation. Since human beings are rational animals, any genuine human excellence has an element of logos—of freely choosing an action as well as its manner, means, extent, and reason, such that the action perfectly fits its context. The general way an action fits its context is by being a “mean” between the extremes of deficiency and excess. Suppose I am shopping with my daughter and she is affronted by some fellow. The “right” intervention, according to Aristotle, falls between cowardice and recklessness, perhaps as a mix of cautious de-escalation and definitive show of strength. What the mean looks like for a specific act depends on the circumstances—why, how, with whom, and how much the agent acts, as well as who the agent is.

Considering these variables and hitting the mean with regard to, for instance, the time of day, absence of other shoppers, appearance and manner of my daughter’s accoster, proximity or absence of security personnel— this belongs to the virtue of prudence. As a sort of keystone virtue, prudence stands out from others (self-control, justice, friendship, etc) because it is the capacity for considering the variables and determining the “mean” act (not too late or soon, not too bold and timid, not too abrasive or deferential) in the proper amount of time. Prudence is the knack of taking the right amount of time to decide on the right action.

But it is worth remembering that virtue is the “active condition” of courage, justice, temperance, etc. The soul cannot choose the mean without first being, actively, a mean. Thus, in the completely virtuous person, all the virtues are on idle. When courage or justice or temperance are called for, we could say prudence functions as the transmission that shifts me into the proper response—for instance, a courageous response to my daughter’s accoster.

Now clearly Aristotle is not prescribing general rules, but rather giving a sort of rough, theoretical guide. The rule is myself; I am the mean if my soul has the capacity to reckon the right action in specific cases. But if so, how in Aristotle’s scheme does one become this mean? How does one become virtuous?

Put simply, we become virtuous through paideia. For the classical Greeks this weighty term referred to the nurture, education, formation of a child (paidion). Famously, much of Plato’s dialogue Republic is taken up with developing a (somewhat ironic) paideia. “Don’t you know,” Socrates asks, “that the beginning is the most important part of every work and that this is especially so with anything young and tender? For at that stage it’s most plastic, and each thing assimilates itself to the model whose stamp anyone wishes to give to it” (377a11 – b3; Bloom trans.). This introduces a famous passage in which Socrates censors allegedly blasphemous and immoral passages of Homer and other poets. It is stories—with their heroes and typical actions—that deeply impress the imaginations of the young; thus literature is a key facet of paideia because it forms the heart with its deepest desires, values, and loyalties.

Another dimension of (Plato’s) paideia was music, “because rhythm and harmony most of all insinuate themselves in to the inmost part of the soul and most vigorously lay hold of it in bringing grace with them” (401d6 – e1). Here Plato is talking not primarily about “studies,” not about piano or drawing lessons, but about atmosphere. There are a myriad of subtle ways by which décor, background music, and small rituals create identity and convey a worldview. And music especially can shape character, planting seeds of boldness or timidity, moderation or indulgence, industry or idleness.

By including “gymnastic,” or physical training, paideia refined the whole person; it cultivated the intellect and imagination, the sensibilities and tastes, and the body. As such, it could be called “enculturation,” the stamping of a culture—with all its images, stories, sounds, gods and heroes, worldview, and overall atmosphere—on the soul of a young child. This is especially true for education in virtue, as Aristotle pointed out: “ [Because] we become virtuous by acting virtuously, . . . it makes no small difference to be habituated in this way or that straight from childhood, but an enormous difference, or rather all the difference” (Nichomachean Ethics 1103B 22; Sachs trans.).

If paideia is the impression of a culture—and especially its virtues—on the child’s heart (Plato’s “inmost part of the soul”), then the heart of paideia is imitation, or mimesis, the soul’s assimilation of pattern from another human being. It is not enough to be surrounded by ennobling music, beautiful art, or stories. What makes all the difference are the people one has for one’s models (Greek typos). This was common sense from Solomon (Prov. 13:20) through Livy to Lincoln; and it appears, at least in outline, in the Pauline ethics of the New Testament. “And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the paideiaand admonition (nouthesis) of the Lord” (Gal. 6:4, KJV). The second part of this upbringing refers to instruction (“establishing the mind”) or in other words, to telling. But the first part refers to showing, or to the way every (especially non-verbal) aspect of surroundings and lifestyle shapes the identity and destiny of a child.  It refers to the “cultural liturgies,” as James K. A. Smith calls them, whether great or small, whether yearly festivals or daily manners. All this fathers are commanded to evaluate, redesign, watch over, and encourage participation in.

How do parents attract the love and loyalty of children to all the aspects of culture? Chiefly by enjoying it themselves, celebrating it, supporting it, learning it themselves.

“Brethren, be imitators (summimetai) together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample (typos)” (Phil. 3:17; also II Thess. 3:7; I Tim 4:12; Titus 2:7). In these and other passages Saint Paul firmly plants mimesis at the center of Christian paideia, whether at home or church.

In the next part of the essay, I will consider further these concepts, will further engage the ethics of Aristotle and the New Testament, as I continue to argue for the relevance of both to our times.

Bret Saunders is Associate Professor of Humanities at John Witherspoon College.