The Relevance of Aristotle and the Role of Christ (pt. 2)

In the first part of this essay, I considered paideia(formation)and mimesis (imitation) in the context of Aristotle’s virtue ethics and that of the New Testament. The overall concern is to realize how relevant is Aristotle’s ethics both to diagnosing our current malaise and to enculturing our children, though we must also recognize where the shortfall is, where Christ must step in less the education fail.

Whether for good or ill, mimesis is at work everywhere. Often what stamps young hearts today is selfish sex, gratuitous violence, and shallow consumerism. Pop-culture paideiais at times incredibly subtle. Take, for instance, a popular children’s show, Paw Patrol®, which features a group of tech-wielding puppy heroes led by a street-savvy boy named Rider.  When my kids first started watching the show, I appreciated the active heroism and untainted loyalty of the characters, who lacked the usual irony and rudeness of such programs. Then I paid closer attention to Rider. Whenever a call for help comes in to headquarters, he is usually depicted playing a game on his smartphone, like any bored ten year-old waiting on his mother at the salon. On the one hand, Rider as the leader of the Paw Patrol is unselfconscious, tenacious, and selfless in pursuing the good of others. On the other hand, to be relatable he must never appear reading or contemplating in a moment of inaction. What kind of pattern for living, Plato and Paul would ask, do these (repeated) images “insinuate” in the young viewer?

From this we see that paideia, though it includes the furniture and background music of life, depends largely on relationship. And if paideia depends on relationship, and virtue on paideia, then virtue goes largely as relationships flourish or wither. Today there is a cottage industry of journalism, social-science research, and cultural commentary on how social-media overuse undermines relationships: how it increases loneliness, makes true intimacymore difficult, degrades teenage friendships, and produces all kinds of shallowness and verbal brutality.

In the face of immoral cultural influences as well as shallow and disintegrating relationships, Aristotle is a helpful source of deep and precise thinking about specific virtues. In a time of speech debasement, it is crucial to recover the language of virtue, of specific virtues. Defending culture means defending a vocabulary of concepts that uphold the culture, since these crucial meanings may be watered down or altogether washed away. And so, for example, we need to start talking about prudence. Children must hear it praised by those around them, for that is how it first “encultures” them. But then it must be discussed and modeled. It turns out to be a key to the rest of the intellectual virtues, such as wisdom, virtues that unlike their contemporary replacements  (“awareness,” “insight,” “critical thinking”) remained somewhat anchored in a view of the human good.

Yet another mark of Aristotle’s relevance is that the virtue most important to him is the virtue we most need to take stock of. According to him, “[N]o one would choose to live without friends, despite having all the rest of the good things” (1155a 5). Strong friendship supersedes justice and completes all the other virtues. Friendship affords our deepest pleasure in virtue, because we love to contemplate virtue in another; but it also drives us toward maturity as another’s excellences rub off on us. However, due to the need for consistent intimacy, we can only have a few good friends. What’s more, there are two kinds of friendships—those of “use” and “pleasure”—that decline from the best kind, the “friendship of virtue.” All of this provides a useful and tested lexicon for understanding our times, for understanding what holds communities together or apart and what makes life worthwhile regardless of wealth or political clout. We have never been more apparently surrounded by friends, never more truly friendless.

Aristotle offers a lexicon of key virtues, an understanding of character anchored in human nature, and an understanding of nature as directed toward the good, which is understood as the maturation and flourishing of the whole person. In the face of our overreliance on scientific reductionism, technical intervention and statist management, Aristotle’s wisdom could hardly be more needed.

Yet Aristotle’s wisdom is not enough, as we see if we reconsider the genesis of virtue in his scheme. If virtue is formed by paideia, and paideia centers on mimesis, whom does one seek to imitate or seek out for one’s children that they may imitate? Saint Paul has an answer. What is Aristotle’s?

Aristotle’s candidate for the role of moral archetypeis interesting. It is not Odysseus, the famously prudent Homeric hero. It is not a sage like Solon or Socrates. It is not someone from Plato’s Academy, one of “my friends, the men who introduced the forms” (1096a 13). It is not Aristotle’s world-conquering student Alexander the Great. Aristotle offers no one by name or type.

What comments he does offer amount to little. Rather circularly, for example, “Actions are called just or temperate whenever they are the sorts of things that a just or temperate person would do” (1105B 7). The “mean” (i.e., of any virtue) is determined by “a person with prudence” (1107a 1). Such a person feels and acts “when one ought, and in the cases in which, and toward the people whom, and for the reasons for the sake of which, and in the manner one ought,” and so forth (1106b 21). All of this amounts to saying that the person we should imitate to become virtuous is someone already virtuous. But if we aren’t yet virtuous ourselves, and if the precise look of virtue varies by situation, how could we recognize this person?

It turns out that the virtuous person, who does “what one ought,” is a place-holder. Aristotle claims no one, whether historical or fictional, as the completely virtuous person. This is not a problem according to his method, because ethics, unlike formal logic, is a discourse that works “in outline,” and one shouldn’t demand more precision than the nature of ethics can offer (1094b 13-28). Ethics is concerned with action, and actions deal with particulars. (The right action depends on this antagonist, thisstore, being this person, this time of day, this visibility, etc). To offer someone as a guide for all people in all actions would threaten the flexibility and usefulness of the scheme, since “the mean is defined in relation to” the individual and his situation.

Thus the strength of Aristotle’s ethics is its weakness: though helpfully flexible and internally grounded, it is insufficiently normative. It is so not because it lacks a standard. That is clearly the flourishing of a complete life, including sufficient possessions, lived according to reason. It is insufficiently normative because it lacks an ultimate standard embodied in a person. The ubiquity of myths  shows our need for heroes, shows that a culture is defined by specific persons and actions. Here it is worth considering that all the heroes Homer knew were flawed, that the greatest stories of his culture were tragedies and theogonies fraught with selfish violence. Philosophy might begin in the wonder stirred up by stories about gods and great men but must proceed to the impersonal “self-thinking thought” of the Unmoved Mover. In any case, without a perfect and perfectly humanexemplar, Aristotle’s ethics is all variables and no values—a lexicon whose terms can be pulled and twisted by any culture, any local tradition, until prudence becomes “playing by the rules” or “playing the game” and self-control becomes merely not binging too often. The shadows of Plato’s Cave darken the Lyceum.

By contrast, Saint Paul confidently offers himself and the other apostles as models, though only because they themselves are offered by someone else: “. . . [I]n me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all long-suffering, for a pattern (tupos) to them which should hereafter believe. . . .” (I Tim. 1:16). What is imitated when one imitates Saint Paul is Christ; all Christians are little children in this paideia: “Be ye therefore imitators (mimetikoi) of God, as dear children” (Gal. 5:1). It is the role, it is the duty of the ecclesial community to conform itself to the good as shown in Christ (I Cor. 12:12, 27).

Much of Aristotle’s virtue ethics and construal of the good life aimed at happiness is biblical, but only if we locate Christ at the key points. God Incarnate is our “end” (Rev. 1:8; Heb. 12:2; cf. 1:16), and we are fulfilled insofar as we are in union with him. “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever,” says one catechism. God is our wisdom (1 Cor. 1:24), life (Acts. 17: 28), standard of maturity (Rom. 8:29), and God gives us sufficient possessions (Mt. 6:25). Whereas Aristotle was wise enough not to pose a serious candidate for the perfectly virtuous person, Christians can do so confidently. It is as if Aristotle left us with a photographic negative, whose corresponding image is Christ. Christ is present in Aristotle’s ethics, just as he is anticipated by Homer’s Christ-figure Odysseus—like a silhouette or echo. It was Aquinas who recognized that although Aristotle’s ethics fills out and helps systematize the ethics of the New Testament, his ethics is only complete with Christ at the center as the perfect exemplar of faith, hope, and love.

This brings us back to paideia. Aristotle was right about the centrality of mimesis in any, but especially moral, education; but it was Saint Augustine who saw that we only become virtuous, and therefore capable of the noblest human friendship, by being converted to friendship with God (Confessions8.15). The genesis of virtue is paideia, and the “the starting point of a man’s paideiasets the course of what follows too” (Plato, Republic 425b10-c1). But this means that for Christians and anyone desiring true virtue, Christ is both the starting point and end (Rev. 1:8; Heb. 12:2), as well as the “way” between (Jn. 14:6).

The bottom line is that governmental programs or church programs, federal regulations or recommendations or bulletins or funding, school reform or new textbooks or changes to civil codes—none of this will more than scrape the surface of our national moral cancer. What we need much more are practices that nurture fellowship and good people nurturing more good people. We need a return to Aristotle’s ethics, but only in the knowledge that his ethics needs Christ.

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