There’s this funny revival of Aristotelian virtue ethics going on in the Church today, typified by N. T. Wright. The Nicomachean Ethics, while more approachable than most Greek philosophy, is as dry as the Metaphysics, so I’m going to pass over my due diligence here and throw out an interesting anomaly.

The-Seven-VirtuesThe virtues we like to take up from the Greeks are not quite the same ones they would have clung to. Wright’s After You Believe (Virtue Reborn, before they decided to market it to Americans) is a little choosy about its use of virtue ethics. After deploying Hamlet’s suggestion that we put on virtue even when we lack it against Luther’s skepticism (an unfortunate choice, this weak-willed king who pressures himself right into suicide), Wright waxes on transformation, renewal, and the like. There are a few suspicious steps in his application of Aristotle to Christianity – first, that he glosses over Aristotle’s concern for contemplation (more here), but also he’s a little vague on which virtues we should prize.

For instance, what about courage? Of the three segments of the Greek city – craftsmen, warriors, and rulers – each had its own arete, a word originally meaning roughly “excellence in one’s role” which later formed the basis of the concept of virtue (analysis here based on History of Ethics, MacIntyre). The craftsman’s arete was exceptional handiwork, but the soldier’s was courage. In early twenty-first century capitalism, it’s not hard to guess which of these two would best survive in a Christian appropriation of “virtue ethics.”The more intellectual churches now in American Protestantism place a high value on excellence in vocation, but you don’t often hear churches talking about courage, apart from perhaps evangelism or “reproof.”

There are other moral ideas and virtues necessarily left behind. Flatterers were despised in premodern times, and one might instead try to cultivate a habit of frank, honest opinions.  Treachery was the lowest circle of Dante’s hell, but we now call it “whistleblowing” or “freedom fighting,” and are perhaps right to do so. You still hear churches preaching about the dangers of lust, one of the Seven Deadlies, but rarely about gluttony, sloth, or wrath. Prosperity Gospel is not the only Christianity too pervaded by the concerns of its age. Take churches which extol vocational excellence, and compare this theme to the Rule of St. Benedict’s statement that any monk becoming proud of his craft must cease practicing it until he regains humility. It’s genuinely confusing, and it lends credence to Francis Spufford’s statement that God’s love “knows the best of me, which may well be not what I am proud of, and the worst of me, which is not what it has occurred to me to be ashamed of.” It may be helpful to occasionally judge ourselves by the alien priorities of times past (e.g., if gluttony is as bad as greed, I’m in rough shape), and to let the past’s concerns expose the ways Christianity has been too determined by zeitgeist. But these concerns are also confusing – where to turn?

aristotle

There are three distinctly Christian virtues with a privileged place in our religion: faith, hope, and love. Wright places them above the pagan virtues, but he never quite indicates why, apart from the Bible saying so. For him, we learn them the same as how we learn pagan virtues – practice, like a musical instrument – but they’re just, you know, better than things like courage or temperance. But perhaps one reason these “virtues” are prized (not virtues; the Bible calls them “spiritual gifts,” in borderline intentional contrast to practiced virtues) is that they are not developed within or mastered like a skill. They are not a habit of controlling mind and body (prudence, temperance), controlling policy or people (justice, sort of) or mastering fear (courage), but they are outward-focused. They have an object and perhaps they acquire them from that object, rather than from practice. All three look to God: courage and temperance stand on their own, but faith is always faith in; hope, hope in; love, love of. They take us outside ourselves, thank God, and what is their source? Faith is a natural response when someone proves herself trustworthy and reliable; hope is hope in a reliable promise, and love both reaches out toward what is lovely and naturally reciprocates when someone first loves us.

I want to play guitar, and grace won’t get me there. Neither will it (necessarily) make me prudent, courageous, or temperate. Those skills, inhering in me, will pass away. Wright never mentions the reason love endures; it joins us to God, an object eternally lovely. Thank God, my faith, hope and love comes from not from myself, nor discipline, nor actions, nor habits, but from the One who elicits them.